Side Show

Side Show

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.

Side Show
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


Video Friday: Let It Sing

In honor of my second Violet review earlier this week, I would like to share a number from the show. This song is Flick’s anthem. It’s a stirring solo as he strives to inspire Violet to spread her wings. What begins as a simple marching rhythm grows into a rousing gospel-like tune (watch the writers talk about it here).

Here is “Let It Sing” performed by Tony nominee Joshua Henry at the 2014 Drama Desk Awards.

 


A Note on Previews, Plus Violet Take Two!

Violet

Matt has a rule that he doesn’t see a show in previews until at least the third week. I, as of late, have been trying to adopt this habit. This is not to say previews aren’t worth seeing or that they’re “bad” performances by any means, but more often than not, the show is simply not ready. It likely still needs more time to polish technical cues, and as they say in the theatre business, the show isn’t “frozen” yet.

For those of you who don’t know how previews work, basically, during those three or four weeks before opening night, the show is still malleable. Cuts are made, lines added, blocking shifted, light cues changed. Many of these shifts are based on how things are going in front of the audiences – the creative team and performers get an idea of which moments aren’t working, what isn’t reading, what can be taken further, etc. So everyone is also rehearsing during the day before the performances each night and constantly adapting to all of these changes. It’s an exhausting and frenzied time. There is so much else going on during a preview period aside from the story being told.

Back in April, Matt and I broke his rule when we got comp tickets to Violet, because come on, we weren’t going to pass up free seats! We saw the seventh preview I believe, and while I liked it (and gave it a fairly good review), it still lacked…something. It felt unfinished, the actors weren’t as connected as they could be, they hadn’t quite found their rhythm – all symptoms of early previews of a musical and of course, things I would never hold against a production.

Something I don’t often get to do is then go back and see a show later on in its run. To be able to return and see the developments and changes is always a rush. In this case, I couldn’t have asked for better circumstances. Four months of eight shows a week (and four Tony nominations) later, I took Brigitte to see the closing performance of Violet last Sunday for her birthday, and I am so happy to have witnessed it. So happy that I’m writing a second mini-review!

I loved this production. Truly. Back in April, I said in my review that I didn’t think the stripped down, minimalist approach fully served the show. Now I couldn’t disagree with myself more. It was incredibly effective and put the emphasis on the characters and the heart of the story. The connections between people were real and specific. I noticed so much more detail this time around – like the way Flick was treated in the opening scenes even when he was not the focus. There were sharp, striking flashes of choreography in “On My Way” and “Luck of the Draw,” moments which may have been there back in previews, but they didn’t read the way they did last week. Props to director Leigh Silverman and everyone else for such tight, precise storytelling.

I also had said there was no depth to the character of Monty and that I didn’t buy the love triangle. Again, now this couldn’t be further from the truth. Colin Donnell brought so much to the role, and you could actually see Monty changing, or at least wanting to change and be better. And I definitely believed this odd triangle of people and the twists and turns of their relationships, thanks to the nuance that developed over the course of the run.

The show was extra emotional since it was the last performance, and everyone was giving it their all. There were extra riffs, milked moments of laughter, and super long applause breaks between numbers. It was quite the ride, and I’m so thrilled I was able to go back on the Violet bus for a second time.

Violet
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, Directed by Leigh Silverman
American Airlines Theatre, Closed August 10th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Sutton Foster and Alexander Gemignani


Violet

Violet

I have to say that amongst a season full of typical Broadway spectacle, it is refreshing to have a simple, understated musical as one of the options. Violet is an ultimate bare bones production: minimal staging on a minimal set. Don’t go expecting big dance numbers (the closest thing to that is the gospel number near the end). And don’t go to see money all over the stage in the form of flying carpets or a moving boxing ring. This musical is, at its core, a character study.

Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Violet is the tale of a disfigured woman (Violet, played by Sutton Foster) and her path to self-love. Growing up in North Carolina, Violet was raised by her widowed father and fell victim to a freak accident when her father’s axe blade came loose and struck her across the face. Thirteen years later, she embarks on a long bus journey to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the hope of being spiritually healed. On the way, she meets and grows close to two soldiers, Monty and Flick, forming an unexpected love triangle.

Even though Violet is being categorized as a revival for Tony season, this is actually the first time it has been on Broadway. There was an Off-Broadway run in 1997 for which it won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. After a successful concert performance at City Center Encores! this past summer, it has officially made the leap to Broadway thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company (check out some highlights here).

I decided to study the score in advance of seeing the show, listening to the cast recording countless times. There are some incredibly beautiful songs with lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical, Caroline, or Change). Since I became quite familiar with the music, I went to the theatre particularly curious about the book. Unfortunately it was not as fleshed out as I’d hoped (although this may be due to the fact that the musical has been cut down to one act). The love story is somewhat lacking; I never really got on board with the triangle. I think a large problem is that aside from Violet, we don’t get much development from the other characters. Flick sings in the end, “I’m not at all the man you first laid eyes on,” but I didn’t see a change. This is by no means a comment on Joshua Henry’s performance, which is smooth as silk. I think it’s more the script that leaves me wanting. Monty, the other male lead (played by the talented Colin Donnell), remains rather bland and two-dimensional throughout as well.

Here’s the real scoop though: Sutton Foster’s a star. Did you hear? There’s this actress who was the understudy and got bumped up to the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, and no one has looked back since. She deserves every Tony Award she will ever receive (two so far), every bit of praise and bit of attention she’s ever gotten. But truly, this isn’t news. Sutton shines in everything she touches, even as a character trying to hide herself from the world. From her hunched physicality, drawn-in shoulders, shielded eyes, wry humor, and using her hair as a barrier, you know who Violet is in an instant. Like in the Off-Broadway production, no make-up is used to create the scar. It is left entirely up to the imagination, and Sutton does all the work you need. This is the posture and behavior of a disfigured girl, ashamed to show her face because of how the world has treated her, and watching her transform over the course of the show is magnificent.

I hope to go back and see it again. I only saw the seventh preview or so, and I’m told it’s undergone several changes. Based on the glowing reviews the show received on Sunday night, I’m guessing things have only headed in the right direction. So even though the book felt thin to me and at times the stripped staging didn’t do much to help, I remain a huge fan of the score and this beautiful story of a girl finding herself. Oh, and of course – Sutton, Sutton, Sutton.

Violet
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, Directed by Leigh Silverman
American Airlines Theatre, Closing August 10th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, and Sutton Foster