By Karen Isaacs
Side Show originally opened in 1997, ran under 100 performances, won a co-nomination at the Tonys for Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley and developed a cult following.
Now it is back on Broadway in a revised version that is both moving and, at times, disturbing. This is a new show for me; I never saw the original.
But I can be sure that this is an emotional evening in the theater.
Side Show is roughly based on the lives of Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins who played the vaudeville circuit in the 1930s. The twins, who were joined at the hip and buttocks, were born in England, effectively sold by their mother to the midwife who exploited and abused them and landed in the U.S. as part of what was often called a “freak show.” They finally sued their managers and gained their freedom. In vaudeville they sang, danced and played the violin and saxophone. The two sisters died in 1969.
The musical focuses on their lives up to the later 1930s when vaudeville is dying. Besides Violet and Daisy, we meet Jake — the man who “minds” them in the side show, Terry Connor – the brash young promoter who takes them to vaudeville, Buddy Foster –his friend who teaches the girls to sing and dance, and Sir– the man who controlled them.
The musical opens with the girls as star attractions in the side show run by Sir who controls them totally. Two brash young men happen on the show: Terry Connor who purports to work for a major vaudeville circuit and his friend, Buddy is a song and dance man. Terry believes the twins could make it big in vaudeville, but when Sir rejects his offer, he conspires with Buddy to teach the girls a song and dance. Soon the girls are suing Sir for their freedom an off they go to vaudeville. In the meantime, the shyer Violet has taken a liking to Buddy while Daisy becomes infatuated with Terry.
This new version, I found after doing some research, has a number of new songs and has gone from a mostly sung-through show to one with significant dialogue.
The show now combines darker elements about the twins lives and their pasts in effective flashback scenes with more light-hearted material from their vaudeville routines. So while we see the “freaks” in the side show, we also have the glitz and of show business.
Erin Davie plays Violet — the shyer of the twins — who only wants a home and family. Emily Padgett plays the bolder Daisy — who delights in saying scandalous things. When offered the possibility of separating the twins, it is Daisy who wants to go ahead with the potentially dangerous surgery while Violet does not. These two are terrific; almost appearing joined (thanks in most cases most likely to some velcro) and singing and dancing up a storm. They create two different characters.
Ryan Silverman as Terry and Matthew Hydzik as Buddy are capable but seem to lack the charisma necessary. Terry is the more scheming of the two; he always has his eye on making the girls stars, either together or individually.
But it is David St. Louis, as Jake — who keeps an eye on them in the side show and becomes their protector when they leave — who creates the most memorable male performance. Besides a strong voice, he gives us a hint at the feelings of this African-American man who is also an outsider.
Bill Russell who wrote the book and lyrics and Henry Krieger who composed the music have written some show-stopping songs. Russell and Krieger wrote the score for Dreamgirls. BUT, and this is a huge but, director Bill Condon is also credited with contributing “added book material.”
Early on we have “Very Well Connected” and the vaudeville number, “Typical Girls Next Door.” But there is also “I Will Never Leave You,” and the first act curtain number, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” All of these are new except for the closing number. Later on we get “Stuck with You” and “You Should Be Loved.” All are terrific.
Hollywood director Bill Condon is directing his first Broadway musical and he has done a spectacular job. He balances the grotesque and the sentimental and draws out terrific performances.
Special notice must be given to costume designer Paul Tazwell who created costumes for the “freaks” that make them aided by the special make up by Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey and Cookie Jordan. The scenic design by David Rockwell shows us both the grim world of the side show and the glamour of stardom.
Side Show is a musical that deserves a substantial run. The subject matter may sound off-putting, but in reality it is about searching for love and discovering your true self.
Side Show is at the St. James Theater on West 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge