|Ryan Silverman, Emily Padgett, Erin Davie, and Matthew Hydzik star in the Broadway revival of the cult musical Side Show.|
It's impossible to know what exactly caused Side Show's criminally short run on Broadway when it first opened in late 1997. By all accounts it was a strong production that made enough of a an impression to snag 4 Tony nominations despite closing in early January in a competitive season which birthed modern masterpiece Ragtime and box office juggernaut The Lion King. The production made stars of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, and as demonstrated by the original cast album Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's score is simply top notch. Perhaps opening on Broadway without the benefit of an out of town tryout hurt the show, or maybe the dark subject matter (about real life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton) scared away potential audience members. Hopefully this excellent new production, under the direction of Oscar winner Bill Condon, meets with more financial success, as it is the kind of ambitious musical drama that is all too rare on Broadway today.
This is not quite the Side Show that opened on Broadway in the fall of 1997. The basic premise, which traces Daisy and Violet's rise from side show attractions to one of the highest paid acts in vaudeville, remains the same as in the original, but many of the details have been changed and updated. Krieger and Russell have heavily reworked the material with a major assist from Condon, who also receives bookwriting credit on the new version, restructuring what was a largely sung-through piece into a more traditional book musical. While I am only passingly familiar with the show's original incarnation, I can report that this new version boasts an excellent, character driven libretto that is lean and tight, with nary an extraneous scene or musical interlude during its fast paced two and a half hour runtime. In fact, if there is any fault in the writing, it is that the issues it broaches are so fascinating that you're often left wanting more.
The show is refreshingly light handed and nuanced when it comes to any kind of message or "lesson" to be learned. Daisy, Violet, and their fellow side show attractions are never portrayed as helpless victims despite the abuse they suffer, and even the less savory characters are given believable motivations and redeeming qualities. Many of the people in Side Show do bad things, but the script mercifully avoids labeling any of them as bad people, choosing instead to let the audience pass judgment if they're so inclined. The romantic elements of the show cover some well worn territory (apparently the vaudeville circuit is a breeding ground for unrequited love), but the added wrinkle of having two distinct protagonists literally attached at the hip gives those stories enough new complications to keep things interesting.
The cast is anchored by two breakthrough performances from Emily Padgett and Erin Davie as Daisy and Violet, respectively. Simultaneously approachable and ethereal, both actresses do an excellent job of delineating their two characters while keeping them separate halves of the same whole. They truly feel as if they have been with one another their entire lives, with a complex and layered relationship that plays out as much in looks and wordless communication as it does in actual lines and songs. Their voices blend seamlessly during their many duets, and truly soar during their two big numbers, the Act I closer "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and the rousing, climactic "I Will Never Leave You." The later is a particularly impressive display of vocal and acting ability, even if the number's staging represents one of Condon's few directorial missteps (to state exactly how Condon went wrong risks spoiling the ending).
As the manager and choreographer who discover the Hiltons, Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik also give excellent performances. Silverman's Terry offers a bit more substance, especially in the revealing "Private Conversation," and the smooth-voiced baritone does particularly well with that number. The immensely charming Hydzik is slightly underutilized as Buddy (one suspects there was more to his character arc than the authors had time for), but he makes the most of what he's given. And David St. Louis brings an extraordinary amount of depth to the role of Jake, the twin's closest friend who has secretly been pining for Violet for years. St. Louis leads the rousing "The Devil You Know," and his "You Should Be Loved" in Act II is another show highlight.
The show's production design is less consistent than the performances, with some sections looking beautiful and others like a bit of an afterthought. David Rockwell's set design for the initial side show is a wonderfully varied collection of platforms and staircases in a beautifully muted color palette, both striking and run down at the same time. As the twins move up in the world, backdrops begin to take the place of actual set pieces, which can make the large stage at the St. James look a tad sparse. Thankfully Paul Tazewell's costumes and the lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer pick up the slack, adding some Broadway glitz and glamour to go with the twins' newfound fame. And Dave and Lou Elsey deserve special mention for the fantastic job they've done on the special makeup for the various side show performers, which strikes the perfect balance between being repulsive and oddly appealing.
Overall, Condon and his crew have done a remarkable job overhauling Side Show in a way that feels true to the spirit of the original, keeping a laserlike focus on the storytelling and character elements. Uniformly fine performances by the supporting cast and truly great work from stars Padgett and Davie further elevate the material, and while the production design can seem bare bones that starkness often works in the piece's favor. Now it's up to audiences to ensure this production has a longer life than the ill-fated original, as this is theatre that deserves to reach the widest audience possible.