Side Show. Like the latest incarnation of Les Misérables, this show comes close to being a vocal completion with soaring voices climbing to celestial heights, or in the case of David St. Louis, just about blowing the roof off the joint.
Side Show is based on the story of the Hilton Sisters – Violet (Erin Davie) and Daisy (Emily Padgett). The twins were born in England, deserted by their mother and left with a woman who set them up for viewing until she met Sir who had other ideas. He brought them all to America where the Hiltons became the stars of the show he created. They are discovered by Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) who sees in them what no one else sees – possibility. Well, Violet sees it. She wants to be famous and travel the world. Daisy on the other hand wants a husband and a family and a home.
When Terry and his side-kick Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) who is much less enthusiastic, offer the women a chance, they take it. Not without some thought about the friends they are leaving and the risk they are taking. Sir is furious at loosing his star attraction, and is even more so when they take him to court to be released from his guardianship. When they leave, they also take with them their unofficial guardian Jake (David St. Louis) who, anyone can see is in love with Daisy. But the combination of her being a conjoined twin and him being black doesn’t give this relationship much hope.
We travel with them as they climb the ladder of success, but soon their hearts and heads want more. And more is not possible. No matter that Terry is head over heels for Violet. Buddy, although his heart is elsewhere, even offers to marry Daisy to make her dream come true. When the marriage is set for half time at a football game, the spectacle of their lives explodes. Even the possibility of an operation is an offer not to be considered. All the twins have and will ever have is one another. Everything is for naught because the circumstances are too grave, too high.
Along the way we are treated to some spectacular, if uneven, music and voices that are astonishing. There is some spiffy dancing and a stunning musical fantasy between Davie and Silverman. Javier Ignacio has a cameo playing Houdini and a voice of pure silk that covers I cannot even count how many octaves. As I mentioned David St. Louis has a voice that makes the audience gasp in spite of the fact that his acting chops are a few paces behind his vocal skills. Davie and Padgett have duets that are arias all on their own. These two women play people joined at the hip, but when they sing you understand on a visceral level that they are joined at the heart.
The story itself lacks punch. We have moved beyond the Side Show era – as we have moved beyond many others – prohibition, the times when being a gay was illegal, and way beyond the dark days when Catholics were pretty much in the same boat. So as each character is introduced in the opening number by “Sir” the “ringmaster” of the side show (Robert Joy) there is a sort of ho-hum about it. No one is really threatening. Chicken blood isn’t real – and the lizard man’s costume fits him so poorly it has wrinkles in its wrinkles.
This big old fly in the ointment, however, is that the conjoining of these twins does not register on the truth-o-meter. Their commitment and partnership is never questioned, but the fact that they have to dash about the stage holding hands so that they don’t fly apart is not so convincing. You get the feeling that one good tug would separate them. Because this is the center around which everything revolves, it’s instability undermines the production.
Still, there is a great deal of talent prancing around on that stage, and you could do worse than share an evening enjoying them all.
The 1997 'flop' musical Side Show has always enjoyed an extended shelf life due to its powerful score which features amongst many others, two gigantic duets for the central female characters. This revised production, first seen at the La Jolla Playhouse and later the Kennedy Center has been destined for Broadway from the very beginning, and thanks to a set of daring producers and some careful re-writes, the musical transcends its original production and feels firmly at place in the 2014-2015 Broadway season.
Thanks to Ryan Murphy's new season of 'American Horror Story: Freak Show', the world of the American side show has been projected back into popular culture, giving those coming to the musical for the first time a foothold into the strange and bizarre world where human 'malformations' are laid bare for audiences to see. The musical opens as the audience are invited to "Come Look at the Freaks", and thanks to some excellent visual effects, a full menagerie of 'freaks' are on offer - from the human pin cushion to a bearded lady.
Based on the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton - two Siamese twins, originally born in England and later packed off to tour the US, the show charts their rags to riches tale of how America came to embrace them, thanks to being 'scouted' by two men they come to fall in love with. As their relationships deepen, hunger for the world's first double marriage grows, and the duo see how quickly the fickle public eye can turn against them.
Much is remembered of the vocal prowess of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the original production, but it is refreshing to see that both Emily Padgett and Erin Davie firmly live up to the roles, and bring a certain sensitivity and complete synchronisation to the duo. Emphasis is placed equally on their acting as much as their belting - something that helps elevate the show beyond the kitsch and camp and gives it real heart.
Ryan Silverman's Terry is somewhat under-acted, and it takes time for him to warm into the character. By his second act number 'Private Conversation' however he is in full control of the role and holds the huge St James stage in the palm of his hand. David St Louis is suitably burly as Jake, protector of the twins, but his vocals lack the richness of his predecessor Norm Lewis, and his version of 'You Should Be Loved' doesn't land as successfully as you would hope.
Changes to the score and book help focus the show and give new edge to the character of Buddy in particular, showing him conflicted by his sexuality which humanises his decision to stall the wedding of the century. The flashback sequence, though cleverly staged, weighs down the first act however and takes us out of the moment with too much effort. In developing minor characters, director Bill Condon helps widen the story and elevates the full freak show ensemble alongside Violet and Daisy, which adds to the tragedy as their story comes full circle, ending with them starring in the Dwain Esper film 'Freaks', where once again they become victims to be laughed and ogled at.
The elegant design keeps the twisting plot moving effectively, contrasting between the world of the Side Show, Vaudeville and Hollywood - assisting the action where necessary. Impressive costume design, make up design and special FX make up add to the overall success of the production. There may not be anything revolutionary about this revival, but the musical now feels like it's found its appropriate time on Broadway, and will hopefully be discovered and loved by a whole new generation.
"This beautiful and wrenching musical, lovingly directed by Bill Condon, asks us to step inside their skins and feel what it’s like to be celebrated one moment, rejected the next, and to have the strange consolation of a companion who shares it all: the pain, the joy, the hope, the frustration."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Beyond a laudably offbeat topic, two very good leading ladies and a shadowy, evocative design, this show’s most stunning jewels are brilliant songs by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell, who revamped the book with director Bill Condon."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Both actresses are impeccable, funny and affecting."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Given all the weirdness in the show, its style and structure is actually pretty conventional. But don't get the wrong idea, as musicals go, this one's quite extraordinary!"
Roma Torre for NY1
"With a rich and unusually melodic score by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell, who also wrote the show's book, 'Side Show' has lots of very good things. What isn't there, though, is also, unfortunately, quite noticeable."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"While 'Side Show' may not pack the punch of its more bizarre original production, it remains an unusual story that has been sympathetically wrought with sincerity and musical smarts."
Michael Sommers for New Jersey Newsroom
"Bill Condon's fabulous 'revisal' maximizes the material's strengths and minimizes its weaknesses, serving up mesmerizing entertainment veined throughout with haunting poignancy."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"The new, improved 'Side Show' smells like a hit. Helmer Bill Condon’s shrewd reworking of this short-lived 1997 cult musical by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell...is both darker in tone and lighter in theme than memory has it."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...