It seems as if for years, people have been fascinated by certain anomalies in society — or, as Robert Ripley (yes, that Ripley) would have called them: “oddities.” This fascination would soon evolve from Mr. Ripley’s eventual Believe It or Not! empire and travelling circuses to that most perverse of modern entertainments: reality television. From Jon And Kate Plus 8 to Little People, Big World, to even the vast Duggar franchise (basically, any TLC reality show at this point), the public’s obsession with anything even remotely different from what is perceived as “normal” still prevails today. There are a couple of shows currently running on the Great White Way which would perfectly exemplify this display of curiosity, one of which being the revival of Henry Kreiger and Bill Russell‘s Side Show over at the St. James Theatre.
(The other — for those who are, well…curious, is the Bradley Cooper-led revival of Bernard Pomerance‘s The Elephant Man.)
For those unfamiliar with Side Show and its unique backstory, the musical chronicles the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the first conjoined twins in Britain known to survive past a few weeks. Throughout their lives, the twins suffered many abuses: first, at the hand of their own mother, who sold the girls the first chance she could get; then later, by their over-controlling managers who, by that time, had become the girls’ only family. Still, despite the troubles they would experience, the girls managed to make their way in the world. From a young age, they were trained to sing, dance and play musical instruments and it was these talents which would lead them to the Sideshow and vaudeville circuits — and eventually, Hollywood.
The original 1997 run of Side Show lasted only 91 performances (122, counting previews) and despite managing to garner not only critical acclaim but also 4 Tony nominations, the show closed just a few short months later. This time around, history will repeat itself once more as the current revival will find itself closing on January 4, 2015. This production is the product of nearly two years’ worth of various reworkings made through out-of-town runs at both La Jolla Playhouse in 2013 and the Kennedy Center earlier this past summer (the show also ran as an “abridged” version at the Kennedy in October 2008, as part of their Broadway: Three Generations presentation).
With this in mind, it is difficult to gauge these improvements made on the show, particularly because I had never seen the original, “un-tainted” version and had only come to be vaguely familiar with the musical after hearing its name bandied about in the theatrosphere as of late. This, then, brings with it many concerns for a critic such as myself; therefore, I must give fair warning when I say that the following opinions are solely based on what I’ve seen from this particular production, and may or may not be subject to change should I eventually come across the original material. (I’ll be sure to let you know my opinions about it here, of course.)
That said, let me start off by saying that there are many things about this show that confused me. Side Show seems to be a show utterly ripe to be a showstopper; what Bob Fosse would have called a “razzle dazzle” kind of show, one with a deep, dark undertone bubbling under all the glitter and glamor. At the show’s start, it seems to set up this idea, with the ensemble introduced to us with the number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” Perhaps a bit too obvious, yes, but as a lover of the darker side of old-timey circus acts (A Human Pin Cushion? A Fortune Teller, you say? SO there!), I brushed aside any immediate judgments for the time being.
As the show goes on, the score never quite delves into the dark underbelly it so intriguingly set up in the aforementioned opener. There are some attempts, such as “Cut Them Apart,” sung by the girls’ British physicians in an expanded backstory portion, but even so, they barely miss the mark. In fact, most of the backstory portion displays the inclusion of moments in which Harry Houdini, of all people, gets his own song (“All in the Mind”); while this in itself is interesting — and factually true — it proved to be one of many head-scratch-inducing moments to come.
Side Show‘s tunes perhaps shine most brightly when sung by the two lead actresses playing the Hiltons; from the girls’ introduction song “Like Everyone Else” (which is a great example of a musical theatre song, and a charming one at that), to their song-and-dance number (“Typical Girls Next Door”), to the signature ballad, “I Will Never Leave You.” It is clear that the show’s creatives are just as interested as the viewing public in exploring the girl’s unique situation — perhaps more so than what really lies beneath the surface.
Still, there are many great things about the 2014 revival, not the least of which is the talented cast. Led, of course, by Erin Davies and Emily Padgett (who play Daisy and Violet, respectively), and joined by Ryan Silverman, Matthew Hydzik and David St. Louis (as the girls’ bodyguard Jake). As the Hilton sisters, Davies and Padgett exude charm, wit and vulnerability, both vocally and in their characterization of each girl. Working — quite literally — in tandem (feel free to cue the sad trombones), the two are perfectly in sync with one another, producing beautiful harmonies.
As for the aforementioned supporting cast, they each hold their own. As the scheming press agent Terry Connor, Silverman looks the part of a dashing Cary Grant type looking to sweep the girls (in particular, Daisy) off their feet, and has the singing chops to go with his indelible charms. Meanwhile, Hydzik, in the role of Terry’s romantically-confused sidekick Buddy Foster, is the perfect bumbling fool to Silverman’s debonair devil. However, it is perhaps St. Louis who steals the show (which is hard to do when among the likes of an array of talents such as this), reminiscent of Joshua Henry‘s performance in Broadway’s Violet earlier this year — his booming voice seems to reverberate and bounce off the walls of the St. James, during numbers such as “Devil You’ve Got to Hide” and “You Should Be Loved.”
Rounded out with brilliant scenic design by David Rockwell (even now, I still marvel at changing sets whenever I see productions on a scale such as this) and beautiful quick-changing costumes by Paul Tazewell, which could rival the likes of William Ivey Long‘s in Broadway’s Cinderella (and to be on par with Ivey Long is a compliment, indeed!), Side Show made for a captivating feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, with a score and book lacking in focus and drive, the show fell short of the possibilities to truly entertain.