I will never—well, probably that should be almost never, but so far as my remembered experience goes, never—begrudge a show its honestly-earned success (even if I concede it grudgingly), because you can’t argue with an audience response that’s strong and unequivocal. And the revival of Side Show certainly garners that.
It’s easy to see why this musical has harbored a cult following, despite a 1997-98 Broadway run that lasted only 91 performances; and easy to see why, in this re-conceived version, it looks to have moved into the mainstream.
The story, beginning in the late 1920s, is a good one. After we’ve been adjured to “Come Look at the Freaks” by the sideshow Boss (Robert Joy), himself giving a performance of unintentional grotesquerie, we meet the beautiful, sympathetic twin Hilton girls, shy Violet (Erin Davie) and flirtations Violet (Emily Padgett), whose only irregularity is that they’re conjoined. They are discovered by Terry (Ryan Silverman) an agent-manager type who can make bookings on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, and his partner buddy (Matthew Hydzik), a song-and-dance man. The twins are wrested/rescued from the sideshow—along with the faithful Jake (David St. Louis), a powerful black man who until then has played the sideshow’s resident cannibal, the only one of that “ensemble” not deformed, to serve as general caretaker and assistant for the twins—and what happens along the way is of course inevitable: Daisay will fall for Buddy and Violet for Terry…(while Jake, quietly lovesick over Daisy, watches from a pained distance, certain that the girls are not being loved for themselves). Not surprisingly in a musical, the feelings are reciprocated…but the conviction to follow through under the circumstances is another matter…and ultimately the conflict at the heart of the story. Our heroines want to live normal lives “like everybody else.” Will they get their wish?
The score (music: Henry Kreiger) is just spiky enough to suggest the harsh carnival/media spotlights, though in general it exists in an anachronistic soft rock vocabulary. Even the “source” songs that the sisters perform on vaudeville stages (as opposed to book songs that come as an outgrowth of dramatic action) are not quite pastiches in the vocabulary of the period; they utilize some of the tropes and forms as a kind of filtering agent but they suggest the era styling more than they literally represent it. The book is hugely improved over the previous version written solo by Bill Russell; director Bill Condon, who contributed the revisions, has stripped away most of the recitative (previously the show had been through sung) and substituted dialogue with some wit, deepening certain characters in the process, and further sharpened what was already a clean narrative line. Russell’s lyrics, however, remain a strange hybrid of clear, economical structural architecture, and graceless clunkiness in the actual locution. It’s like a benign but unseemly metastasis in an otherwise robust body.
Condon’s direction is as pointed and focused as his rewrites; he’s abetted by a crackerjack design team who never let the universe become too literal; and the cast is across-the-board first-rate. Whatever alchemical thing has happened as the new personnel have wrought their changes and the original creative team has wrought theirs in tandem has clearly moved Side Show out of its cult status and, very likely, into the class of mainstream hit.
There are those, though, who, like me, still find the material a bit wanting. Even with very diminished recitative, it’s still very beholden to the Euro-musical style in the sense that most of it is declamatory; there’s a degree of subtext in the scenes, but very little in the songs, with the result that—again, only for some—Side Show impresses up to a point but never truly gets under the skin. At best, we’re engaged, never really moved.
But I guess that’s to be expected. Since the original creative team and the core of their work must remain the same—it is their baby after all, and from the core came the cult—what else could a revised Side Show be, really, but a better version of the same thing…?
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