Rarely can a Broadway show flop only to be resurrected on The Great White Way. But that is the storyline of the compelling and affecting revival of the musical Side Show, which proves a show can have a well-deserved second chance. I never saw the original production during its 91 performances in 1997 so I won’t be comparing and contrasting the two versions, but focusing on the here and now.
Side Show is based on the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins, who were able to rise from a hellish childhood in their early lives to fame on the vaudeville circuit during the 1930’s.
The opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the initial tone of the productions with its darkened lighting and side show freaks peering out of the recesses of a dilapidated stage. They are overseen by the sinister and creepy, Sir, played with ghoulish menace by Robert Joy. Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie), stars of the seedy show, are eventually emancipated by a slick talent scout, Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman), and his sidekick, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), an aspiring actor/choreographer. Together, the four souls climb the vaudeville ranks to become rich and famous. However, while on the surface their intertwined lives seem glamorous and exciting their relationships and emotional entanglements are anything but captivating and alluring.
What elevates Side Show are the performances of its two female leads. Emily Padgett (Daisy) and Erin Davie (Violet) are one, yet wholly different. Daisy is more outgoing and flirtatious, while Violet is introverted and seeks normalcy in her life. They are able to convey their anxieties, mistrust of others, and panic, but also their hopes and dreams. Throughout we, the audience, connect with their characters as their lives are splashed before us.
Robert Joy as the swaggering and threatening master of the side show is also able to suggest a shred of humanity even while he berates and bullies his workers. He is as desperate as his outlandish employees to fit into society albeit on its fringe.
Ryan Silverman plays the scheming Terry Connor with just the right amount of silkiness and shrewdness as he lures the Hilton sisters to the big time. Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster is a bundle of competing desires and passions as he, too, reaches for fame and fortune. David St. Louis as Jake, friend and confidante to the sisters, possesses a powerful singing voice. Employed by Terry Connor when they all flee the side show, his character, an African-American during a time of racial inequity, is a seething inferno of emotions.
The rewrites of the book by Bill Russell and Bill Condon have served the musical well. This is a taut production where every element fits into a greater whole. The two furnish just enough back story to provide the audience a semblance of the Hilton girls’ harrowing upbringing. In Act II the writers focus more on the personal and professional lives of Daisy and Violet, which continue to be chaotic and heartrending. They also give us a glimpse of the naughty 1930’s through a marvelous newsreel production number, the only scene where choreographer Anthony Van Laast demonstrates his appreciable skills.
Condon, doing double duty as director, keeps the action flowing to effectively create an absorbing drama that is both dark and light; buoyant and poignant. The essence of the show is connections—those the characters make with each other and those the audience forms with the performers. Condon ensures these connections resonate throughout the show, forging a bond that gives Side Show its emotional depth.
The score by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger incorporates major revisions and additions from the original production. Whatever changes they have made, the songs in Side Show are both strong and heartbreaking. They convey the pain and joy of what Daisy and Violet are experiencing. The Act I finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is one of the finest closing numbers in recent memory.
A special nod to the artists behind the make-up, wigs, costumes, and illusions of the side show denizens—Dave and Lou Elsey, Charles G. Lapointe, Cookie Jordan, and Paul Kieve. Their realism and freakishness were both alluring and off-putting at the same time.
Side Show, well-worth seeing the second time around