Monday, November 17, 2014

109. Review of SIDE SHOW (November 14, 2014)



I must admit to not being familiar with the original production of SIDE SHOW, which ran for only 91 performances on Broadway in 1997 yet became a cult favorite waiting in the wings for someone to revisit, revise, and revive it. That moment has come, and Broadway audiences will surely welcome with open arms this fascinating, lyrical, and deeply touching show set during the Depression in the world of carny freaks and geeks. If you’ve ever seen Tod Browning’s 1932 movie FREAKS, you’ll recognize the world of SIDE SHOW, especially since the Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, who appear in the film, are the musical’s subject. The show’s punning title plays off both the medium in which they first drew attention and the anatomical anomaly that made them famous.
SIDE SHOW is loosely based on the twins’ lives, which also were musicalized in TWENTY FINGERS TWENTY TOES (1989), an Off Broadway show that ran for 35 performances. BOUND BY FLESH, a well-received documentary film by Leslie Zemeckis appeared in 2012, and, of course, there’s a biography, Jensen, Dean’s The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins (2006). But the ultimate memorial to the momentarily successful but tragically sad lives of these conjoined freak show and vaudeville entertainers—who were born in 1908 and died in poverty of the Hong Kong flu in 1969—is SIDE SHOW, greatly revised from Bill Russell’s original book by Russell and film director/screenwriter Bill Condon (DREAMGIRLS). Condon also directed this splendid revival, now at the St. James Theatre after premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse and then being further refined at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Reimagined Revival of SIDE SHOW Opens Tonight on Broadway
From left: Emily Padgett, Erin Davie. Photo: Joan Marcus.

SIDE SHOW’s songs, with lyrics by Russell and music by Henry Krieger (including many new numbers and the omission of several earlier ones), range from the tuneful to the infectiously rhythmic to the emotionally affecting to the vocally soaring. The two best, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” retained from the 1997 score, are guaranteed to turn your eye faucets on. The first of them ends Act 1; when the lights came up, not only were salty streams rolling down my cheeks, the same was true of many others who were digging in their pockets and purses for something to staunch the flow. The spigots are opened once again when the twins sing the second number, late in Act 2.
Company of SIDE SHOW. Center (striped jacket): Robert Joy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The book, which covers the twins’ lives up through the Depression, when they become vaudeville stars, is in the manner of a musical biodrama, using flashbacks to fill in the story of how the English-born girls were handed over by their unfeeling Auntie (Blair Ross) to a side show operator who took control of their lives. Called Sir (Robert Joy, excellent), this Cockney manipulator opens the show with the sensational “Look at the Freaks,” which introduces his American sideshow, peopled with all sorts of odd specimens, including a 3-Legged Man (Brandon Bieber), a Fortune Teller (Charity Angel Dawson), a Venus di Milo (Lauren Elder), a Dog Boy (Javier Ignacio), a Half Man/Half Woman (Kelvin Moon Loh), a Human Pin Cushion (Barrett Martin), a Lizard Man (Don Richard), a Bearded Lady (Blair Ross), a Tattoo Girl (Hannah Shankman), the Female and Male Cossack dwarfs (Josh Walker and Jordanna James), and a Geek (Matthew Patrick Davis), the latter being a tall, spindly creature with huge knees, an oversized head, and protruding ears. The actors playing the freaks form an ensemble allowing most of them to play multiple roles. (The 1997 production, I’ve learned, eschewed the realistic presentation of the freaks, relying instead on postures and attitudes to suggest their deformities.)
The makeup and, especially, the freaks’ masks (the exceptional work of Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey), create an indelible impression. It’s only when the actors come out carrying their masks during the curtain calls that it becomes clear how their physiognomies were created. Their costumes, by Paul Tazewell, are also brilliant, but so are those worn by all the other characters, including the gorgeous dresses and gowns donned by the twins once their careers take off. Mr. Tazewell’s costumes are sure to be in the running for awards when the season ends.
David Rockwell’s imaginative sets, often using false prosceniums, create the perfect theatrical ambience for telling the story, while Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s innovative lighting couldn’t better complement the other visual elements. Anthony Van Laast’s sparkling choreography, much of it designed to allow the twins to dance in tandem, provides additional visual appeal, while conductor Sam Davis’s arrangements and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations for the 15-member orchestra make listening a continual pleasure.
Violet and Daisy are portrayed, respectively, by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett with physical finesse, comedic charm, heartbreaking sincerity, infinite grace, and lovely soprano voices possessing just the right difference in timbres. Having to perform in costumes that, using hidden magnets, join them at the hip, can’t be easy, but they’ve brilliantly mastered both the movements they must do in planned synchronicity and those that require them to pull against one another when their individual wills struggle for supremacy. Makeup and wigs do their best to make them as identical as possible, even though photos of the actual Hiltons show them as looking rather different from one another. In fact, as their careers advanced they tried to look like individuals, with different clothing and hair coloring, but SIDE SHOW makes no effort to suggest anything other than their striking resemblance.
The sisters’ personality differences, of course, provide much of the dramatic interest, with Daisy being ambitious and sexually curious, for example, while Violet, who would prefer a typical home life, is more constrained. Whatever their friction, the sisters strive valiantly against all odds to overcome other people’s discomfort and curiosity, to be treated as normal, and to fully accept themselves as human beings. [Note: John F. Weiner, a careful reader, tells me that in the original version of this review I’d gotten the twins’ personalities mixed up. The error has now been corrected. Thanks, John]
The plot introduces love interests in the form of a handsome press agent named Terry (Ryan Silverman, very good), and a song-and-dance man named Buddy (Matthew Hydzik, fine). Terry, who falls for Daisy, wants to help the twins’ careers (and his own pocketbook) by freeing the girls from virtual bondage to Sir and signing them to a contract on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Buddy eventually agrees to marry Violet in a publicity-generating public ceremony. Self-interest on the part of one and sexual ambivalence on that of the other, however, lead these men to disappoint the twins. Complicating matters is Jake (David St. Louis, outstanding), the African-American former carny worker who serves the women as an assistant and who also loves Violet, but whose race creates potential problems. The show doesn’t shy away from speculation on the sexual possibilities marriage to a conjoined twin might entail, and a delightful number called “One plus One Equals Three” nicely satirizes the issue. Silverman and St. Louis have standout songs, the former with the exquisite “A Private Conversation” in a dream sequence, the latter demonstrating his powerful baritone in the potent “You Should Be Loved.”
Despite its title, SIDE SHOW definitely belongs on the Main Stem, and deserves a long run as a work that, as the song says, will never leave you.

St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th Street
Opens: November 17, 2014