If ever there was a show that defines the phrase ‘cult musical’, it’s Side Show. Apologies to Chess, Follies, and that telekinetic favorite Carrie. In the 17 years since its premiere, the Bill Russell and Henry Krieger labor of love inspired by the true-life tale of the Hilton sisters—conjoined twins?turned?vaudeville entertainers—has built a fan base that its initial three-and-a-half-month Broadway run could never have prophesied. Super-fans (a.k.a. ”Side Show Freaks”) have watched this long-deserved revival inch its way across the country, from San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse to Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and finally to New York; they?ve given tacit pre-approval to first-time Broadway director Bill Condon—after all, he wrote the screenplay for 2002’s Best Picture Oscar-winner Chicago, and he brought Krieger’s musical Dreamgirls to the big screen in 2007. How high is the anticipation? Don’t be surprised if applause breaks out after the first few haunting, tinkly notes of the opening ”Come Look at the Freaks.”
If you saw Side Show the first time around, you may not recognize it. No one needs a scene-by-scene comparison, but do know that it’s been heavily rewritten—reportedly by about 60 percent—and a few of your favorite numbers may likely be gone (personally, I missed the kicky Egyptian-themed ’20s pastiche ”We Share Everything”). And if you didn’t see it the first time around, you’re likely to leave asking: what was all the fuss about? Certainly not this leaden, sporadically moving update—which bears little resemblance to the original production.
Condon, a Side Show fan himself, has used the Hilton sisters’ real-life appearance in the 1932 horror flick Freaks as inspiration for a somewhat traditional biomusical: Think of it as the E! True Hollywood Story of ”Siamese” twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, respectively): how they went from 10-cent sideshow attractions to vaudeville headliners to short-lived silver screen stars, battling exploitation and heartbreak at every turn. But in giving the girls a backstory—a trial to fight their guardian, a flashback to their childhood in England where they meet Houdini—Condon subverts the show’s momentum. (Leading men Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik—bland and blander as Daisy and Violet’s managers and love interests—and Anthony Van Laast’s clunky choreography also contribute to the energy sapping.)
One aspect such revisions have not messed with: the two linchpins of Side Show’s score, the twins’ power-ballad duets ”Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and ”I Will Never Leave You”, both as heart-stopping (and tear-jerking) as ever, and Padgett and Davie are never more connected than they are in those moments.
Speaking of connections…original stars Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley became ”conjoined” by standing side-by-side, hip against hip. The audience imagined their physical bond. (It’s a little like the disfigured title character in the musical Violet, in which the lead actress wears no makeup to create a scar—we simply imagine it.) Here, Padgett and Davie are clearly connected another way: extra-strong magnets. And one can’t help but wonder, why? Sure, everything is much more fleshed-out in Condon’s production: Daisy and Violet’s fellow ”freaks”—the Bearded Lady, the Half Man/Half Woman, the 3-Legged Man—all get full American Horror Story treatment (though Dog Boy looks an awful lot like Chewbacca). But in making Daisy and Violet’s connection literal, the production robs us of a chance to fully relate to the sisters—even if it is just, as Houdini sings, ”all in the mind.” C