Daisy and Violet Hilton, twin sisters permanently connected at the hip by a ribbon of flesh, were spectacularly popular entertainers in the 1920’s, so it seems fitting that “Side Show,” a musical about them that lasted just a few months on Broadway when it debuted in 1997, is back on Broadway in a spectacularly entertaining production. There’s nothing more quintessentially show business than a comeback, especially for a show with such a cult following; it was by far the most eagerly anticipated musical of the Broadway season in a poll I conducted.
The show’s devotees will surely debate the many changes in this production (which received huzzahs in both La Jolla, California and Washington D.C) There are flashbacks now that show more of the Hilton’s miserable upbringing; the male characters are more fleshed out; most noticeable of all, the design is way more explicit – the freaks of the side show, from Tattoo Girl to Lizard Man to Geek, are now unmistakable grotesques. But those less in thrall to the musical’s legacy are more likely to see that the “freakery” is itself largely but a side show. Yes, “Side Show” is a story about being an outsider, and about finding love — the best songs in the show, both sung by the sisters, are “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” which closes the first act
and “I Will Never Leave You,” the 11 o’clock number. But “Side Show” is also at heart a conventional show about show business, a stars-are-born musical that doesn’t dig very deep. It does, however, allow for one musical number after another that are both visually splendid and wonderfully performed.
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“Come look at the freaks, “ the ensemble sings at the very beginning of the show. The Hilton sisters, the outgoing Daisy (Emily Padgett) and the grounded Violet (Erin Davie) are the star attraction of a carnival run by their exploitative legal guardian known only as Sir (a terrifically slimy Robert Joy), when they are approached by a hustling producer Terry Connor (the always reliable Ryan Silverman) and his sidekick, the song-and-dance man Buddy (Matthew Hydzik.) They want to turn them from a sideshow exhibit into vaudeville stars, on a par with Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. “I’m very well-connected,” Terry sings (one of the many new songs.)
“So are we,” Daisy cracks.
This doesn’t sit well with Jake (stand-out David St. Louis), who performs as an African cannibal in the sideshow, but who is actually from Hackensack, New Jersey, and whose primary job is to protect the sisters. He delivers the first of the power ballads of the evening, “The Devil You Know.”
With Terry’s help, the sisters take Sir to court, and win control over their own lives.
We see them in increasingly polished numbers, wearing one after another of Paul Tazewell’s dazzling costumes. Davie and Padgett manage to present distinctive flavors in their performances, but also exhibit in the coordination of their dancing exactly why audiences must have been so thrilled by the Hilton sisters.
The second act continues with their show business career but also turns into a love story – or, rather, a story about the difficulty of finding real love. Violet is in love with Buddy, and Buddy wants to marry her; but he’s gay. Jake is in love with Violet, but she can’t see an interracial relationship working. Terry wants Daisy, but only if she’ll undergo an operation that will separate her from her twin.
“Side Show” ends in 1932 with something of an affirmation of the sisters’ independence and individuality, but, to the credit of the creative team, there is a hint of a less-than-happy future; they are cast in a film called “Freaks,” which adds an edge to the song “Look at the Freaks” when the ensemble repeats it as the closing number. This is nowhere near as sad as the actual story of the Hilton sisters, who lived some four more decades without any further success. Having been abandoned by their latest manager at a drive-in, they worked their final years as grocery store clerks. But “Side Show” is, after all, a Broadway musical.
At the St.James Theater
Book and lyrics by Bill Russell; music by Henry Krieger; additional book material by Bill Condon; directed by Mr. Condon; choreography by Anthony Van Laast; musical direction and arrangements by Sam Davis; sets by David Rockwell; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound by Peter Hylenski; special makeup and effects by Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; makeup design by Cookie Jordan; illusion consultant, Paul Kieve; orchestrations by Harold Wheeler;
Cast: Erin Davie (Violet Hilton), Emily Padgett (Daisy Hilton), Matthew Hydzik (Buddy Foster), Robert Joy (Sir), Ryan Silverman (Terry Connor), David St. Louis (Jake) and Blair Ross (Auntie/Bearded Lady/Ensemble).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Update December 12: The producers announced that Side Show will close on Broadway on January 4, 2015