The musical about conjoined twins brings double the thrills and double the heartbreak.
As I’ve tuned into the word of mouth and critical response this season, I’ve noticed that there are two camps of thought regarding the revival of Side Show. The buzz was nothing but positive early on, it got a great Times review, and many loved it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, I’ve talked to people who couldn’t stand it – from the updated book to the direction of the entire piece. Whether or not this divisive response is a sign of good theatre is a conversation for another day. Instead, I’m here to tell you I’m in the first camp. I liked it! Quite a bit (watch a sneak peek here).
Side Show is based on real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, and their lives in the side show and vaudeville worlds of the 1930s. It had a brief Broadway run in 1997 starring Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner (watch them sing on Rosie O’Donnell’s old show here). The current revival is a revised version which started out at La Jolla Playhouse and then had a successful run at the Kennedy Center last summer. Now, I never saw the original, but I’m relatively familiar with the cast recording. I couldn’t sing the whole thing through from memory, but I recognize most of the tunes. All that to say, I’m not loyal to the original as I know some are. A friend of mine was very unhappy with all of the changes and found herself missing what it once was. About 60% or so has been revised: new songs, new scenes, the works.
The book is not without its flaws. The love stories get a little sloppy, but for some reason, it didn’t bother me. Things get melodramatic at times, which has never been a preference of mine, but it rides the edge nicely enough and never fully collapses into that style (like The Last Ship). A major flashback has been added to Act 1, filling in the girls’ backstory and how they ended up in a side show in Texas as the rightful property of the ringmaster. If there was one section that didn’t grab me as much as the rest, it was this scene. I understand the significance of including it, but the way it was told didn’t grab me. Harry Houdini stops by for a bit, and the action comes to a halt.
The two love interests, Terry and Buddy, who rescue the girls from the side show and make them vaudeville stars, kind of blend together. Basically, they’re underwritten. I suppose you could argue that it’s because they’re not the focus – we’re here for the twins and the twins alone. But come to think of it, the way the male romantic leads are written is similar to how many female roles are written in the canon. Not much to them, no real defining characteristics, there only to serve the purpose of the main (male) characters (Cosette, anyone?).
Flaws aside, the freaks are awesome in this. We begin with the side show and the charged opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” In the original, the choice was made to have everyone look “normal.” Kind of like in Violet – no make-up is used to display Violet’s terrible facial scar. It’s left up to the imagination and drives home the point of “they’re just like everyone else.” In the revival, there is nothing left to the imagination. The costumes and make-up are fantastic, and I think the message still comes through.
But let’s get to back to Daisy and Violet. Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are the heart of this musical. These two actresses are so in sync with each other that when the sisters are at odds, it’s all the more effective and challenging to watch them struggle (hear them talk about the experience of sharing a hip here). The Act One Finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is worth the price of admission in my book. Their voices together – oof, such power in their sound. Chills down my spine. The same goes for the Act 2 Finale, “I Will Never Leave You.” Both songs are show stoppers, combined with beautiful voices that lock in together perfectly.
Freak shows speaks to the inner part of us that wants to see people who look different or grotesque. I think it’s for the same reason drivers slow down on the highway to look at an accident. Ultimately, Side Show is a heart-breaking story about being different and longing for acceptance. Everyone can relate to feeling like a freak and wanting to be loved. It’s not a mistake when the spotlights on stage turn to shine on us for just a moment during the reprise of that taunting opening number. So come on, folks. Come look at the freaks.
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell, Music by Henry Krieger, Additional Book Material and Directed by Bill Condon
St. James Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emily Padgett and Erin Davie