New York City Theater
St. James Theater
When David St. Louis unleashes his voice, soaring above the over-amplified orchestra to sing the powerful “You Should Be Loved,” he embraces theatergoers and finds the heart of “Side Show.” He’s Jake, the African-American who progresses from ferocious freak show cannibal to loving protector of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Projected as another outcast because of his color (the time is the 1930s), St. Louis gives emotional direction to a musical that, however striking, can’t decide what it wants to be.
This version of the critically praised but unsuccessful 1997 original (91 performances) cuts some numbers, adds others and revises the libretto. The score by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (lyrics) doesn’t hold back: insistent and daring, romantic and anthemic, brazen and biting, it has a driving momentum. (The act finales, “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You,” are exquisite.)
The show’s initial outing was challenging, telling its tale of Siamese Twins who struck it big in vaudeville not only as oddities to be ogled at but also as talented entertainers. Their personal travails were metaphors, asking the bigger question: Who is the true freak – we or you?
The twins’ search for love and individuality while being forever tied together is, on its own, a story filled with fear and frustration. Who wants to be imprisoned with one person all one’s life? (The women died in their 60s.) And how can they find love? (The sisters did have husbands.)
The new production gives Daisy and Violet an accurate back story, highlighted by their illegitimacy, the harridan mother who rejects them and their meeting with Harry Houdini. It’s the famous escape artist who helps them find their individuality, their eventually being able to say “We’re nothing alike.”
First discovered by an agent in a side show run by a vicious, exploitive tyrant called Sir (a sleazy Robert Joy), they’re surrounded by sympathetic exiles like the bearded lady, three-legged man, dog boy, half man/half woman and lizard man. Venturing into the outside world, the twins eventually become vaudeville superstars, then are featured in Tod Browning’s notorious film, “Freaks.”
Their love life is not as smooth and here’s where the new show gets flummoxed. Buddy, creator of the sisters’ vaudeville act, has a secret in his private life that sends his romance with Violet off the rails. But that “secret” is so underdeveloped, it’s easily missed. As for Terry, the twins’ agent, his hesitation about Daisy comes down to his wanting her alone, even to touting an operation that will surgically divide her from Violet. Yet he doesn’t really seem at all invested in her as a person.
Given short shrift are social implications. Only sporadically does the show become more than a tale of unrequited love. Nor does it help that there are echoes of “Cabaret” (“One Plus One Equals Three”) and “Gypsy” without those shows’ sense of danger.
Emily Padgett is a thorny, pragmatic, ambitious Daisy, although her lyrics are sometimes unintelligible, while Erin Davie is touching as the vulnerable, beleaguered Violet. The men don’t fare as well. Ryan Silverman’s Terry is colorless; as Buddy, Matthew Hydzik does his best to overcome an underwritten role.
Co-librettist Bill Condon’s expert direction is eerily atmospheric, in keeping with the minimalist physical production that pushes the characters to the fore. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are splendid, as is the special make-up effects design by Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey. Now if only that libretto had more depth and punch.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 24, 2014