Theater Review: The Dual Nature of Side Show

Photo: ?2014 Joan Marcus

Despite what seemed like weeks of buzz about its radical transformations, the revival of Side Show that opened on Broadway tonight is not as meaningfully different from the 1997 original as its current creatives would like to think. Now as then, the cult musical about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton is itself conjoined. (There’s no avoiding the Siamese imagery; many of the songs, and even the title, play on the theme.) The story of the Hiltons’ rise from circus freaks to vaudeville stars in the early 1930s, with all the requisite references to cultural voyeurism and its human costs, is fused to an intimate story of emotional accommodation between sisters as unalike as sisters can be. The problem with Side Show is that these stories can’t be separated, and only one can thrive.

For me, it’s the intimate story that deserves precedence; it’s far better told. But Bill Condon, the film director who conceived the revival and put it on stage, lavishes much more attention on the other. In any case, you can’t get to the first except through the second. The opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” efficiently says it all: “Come explore why they fascinate you / exasperate you / and flush your cheeks.” In it, Daisy and Violet, joined at the hip, are placeholders, no different than the human pincushion and the half-man-half-woman and all the others being introduced; it hardly matters what each twin is like individually or what kind of “talent” makes them marketable together. Even as the show proceeds, they often remain exhibits in a parable of exploitation. First they are exploited by Auntie, who raised them as peep-show attractions in the back parlor; then by Auntie’s widower, Sir, who features them in his circus sideshow. (This tale, quasi-accurate, is told in flashback.) Their apparent rescue by Terry, the man from the Orpheum circuit, and Buddy, a song-and-dance mentor, only furthers the theme; Terry’s eye for the main chance, and Buddy’s for a way out of his own sense of abnormality (he’s gay), eventually reduce them, too, to exploiters. (This part is fiction, or at least conflation.) Finally Hollywood, in the form of Tod Browning, chimes in; the famous director of Dracula brings the story full circle by casting the twins in a lurid 1932 sideshow drama called Freaks. (That’s true.)

Using the format of a musical to explore voyeurism is a complicated business; looking at freaks of one kind or another is part of the contract of showbiz. Whether the freak is a merman or a Merman, all that producers can sell to audiences is the uniqueness of their stars. Aggressively soliciting your interest and then scolding you for it is therefore a paradoxical and somewhat disagreeable approach, one that Side Show takes so often I began to shut down whenever the meta-material kicked in. 

That may be because the level of craft just isn’t high enough. All the effort seems to have gone into fashioning big visual payoffs, some of which are indeed jaw-dropping. (The show is almost always gorgeous to look at.) But to support those moments, much of the story — by Bill Russell, with additional material by Condon — is grossly inflated, hectic, and vague. (This seems to have gotten worse, not better, in the revamping.) The plot itself suffers from the rampant musical-theater disease I’ve elsewhere dubbed Emphasitis, in which the emotional volume is jacked up to the point that everything starts to seem the same. The songs, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Russell, have an especially bad case. Despite a clutch of new numbers, and a thorough shuffling of the old ones, the nearly through-composed score lacks texture. Whenever it gets big, it gets banal, with no relationship between the musical idiom and the material. Indeed, much of the music is indistinguishable from Krieger’s work on Dreamgirls. Even the vaudeville pastiches, which ought to serve as comic relief, run out of wit before they run out of tune.

Before I get hacked to pieces by an angry mob of Side Show cultists, let me turn to the other half of the show: the one you might call Daisy and Violet. Amazingly, this half is just as delicate and lovely as the other is loud and ungainly. All the subtlety unused in the big story is lavished here on a believable yet unpredictable arc for the twins. As Daisy, the more ambitious one, grows sharper and harder with disappointment, Violet, the more conventional one, grows sadder and lonelier — even though it’s she who gets married. Watching them negotiate each other physically, while trying not to think about the giant magnets sewn into the actresses’ underwear, one does not need help to see, or rather feel, the metaphor of human connection and its discontent. Even the songwriting is of a different quality here: lithe and specific. Daisy always introduces herself with a confident leaping two-note figure; Violet with a drooping triplet. And when they sing together, as in the big ballads “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” the size of the statements for once seems earned, as we have learned from the inside to care for the characters.

For that we have Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, both thrilling, to thank; stepping into the four shoes of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, who played Daisy and Violet in the original, they are as powerful singers and more nuanced actors. Davie especially must negotiate an obstacle course of whiplashing emotion; not only does Buddy profess his love to her, but so, too, does the twins’ friend Jake, the former King of the Cannibals in the sideshow and now their all-purpose body man. In the moment of her choice between the gay man and the black man — a choice that naturally implicates the sister beside her — the best threads of the musical tie together in the recognition that though we are all conjoined we are also all distinct. 

I wish the rest of the show were up to that level, or up to the level of the skilled actors who play the three men: the strapping Ryan Silverman as Terry, the likable Matthew Hydzik as Buddy, the dignified David St. Louis as Jake. But each of them is stuck with obvious outer-story characterizations and laborious outer-story songs; they thus seem like placards. Perhaps this was Condon’s intention; after all, there is a profound tradition of theater (and film) in which we are not meant to feel directly but to comprehend what the authors have identified as the apposite feeling. If so, perhaps Condon should have gotten rid of the brilliant device of having the Lizard Man, when on break from the sideshow, wear reading glasses. That one image tells us more about the ordinary humanity of the freaks than all the Brechtian scaffolding. Sometimes a big musical is best when it’s very small.

Side Show is at the St. James Theatre.