Sunday, June 22, 2014

Side Show

Watching the revised version of Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) at the Kennedy Center is a multilayered experience to fans of the original, particularly those who know the CD, and even the show, by heart. It's difficult to be totally immersed when part of you is doing a running compare-and-contrast. Hmm, I like the costumes a lot. Hmm, great set. Hmm, they're not Alice and Emily , but they're pretty good. Hmm, interesting to have the "freaks" actually depicted rather than left mostly to the imagination. Oh, wait, great lyric change. Hey, where did that song go? Hmm, that new song is a really good idea.

Emily Padgett, Erin Davie
Photo: Cade Martin
Little by little, however, the show entices you in, and little by little Erin Davie and Emily Padgett win you over on their own terms, and pretty soon, you realize, wow, this is good! Wow, this is very good! And by the time the final curtain goes down, you're completely involved. Bottom line: this revision is pretty darn wonderful.

Side Show is the story of Daisy (Padgett) and Violet (Davie) Hilton, conjoined twins who spent most of their lives on display, from side shows to vaudeville to the movies. They made a great deal of money but ended up working in a supermarket in Charlotte, NC, and died very close to penniless. Side Show follows--and somewhat fictionalizes--their lives from childhood to the beginning of their movie career.

With the changes--and Bill Condon's far superior direction--this Side Show is stronger, smarter, clearer, more logical, wittier, and considerably less silly than the original. Not that these improvements are without cost. In smoothing down the edges and refining the storytelling, a bit of the passion is lost. For example, the song "Tunnel of Love" is gone. Personally, I don't like "Tunnel of Love," but it does have an admirable balls-to-the-wall emotionality. Similarly, Alice Ripley (Violet) and Emily Skinner (Daisy) were all passion and emotion, wailing away at their big songs, while Erin Davie and Emily Padgett give more subdued performances. There are many ways in which I prefer the later pair's interpretations--they disappear into the characters more effectively--but, still, a bit of the passion is lost.

The only change I'd consider a flat-out mistake is the addition of a song sung by Houdini, teaching the girls how to go to a private place in their minds when they need space from each other. The same concept was dealt with in a few lines of dialogue in the original version, and the song isn't interesting enough, or Javier Ignacio's Houdini compelling enough, to justify the time it takes.
The Hilton Twins

Overall, however, the gains far outweigh the losses. The twins' back story is effectively told. Buddy's ambivalence is better delineated. The "freaks" are charming and touching. Terry's passion is more realitic, as is his response to it. "I Will Never Leave You" is set up in a way that removes the "duh" aspect. The phrase "side show" replaces "freak show" in many places, which makes a large and important difference. The pacing is excellent. And this Side Show is a real treat for the eyes, from the costumes (Paul Tazewell) to the scenic design (David Rockwell) to the lighting (Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer). And the small touches are lovely. I saw it with four other people, and each of us came away having noticed different charming, odd, or moving details. A big favorite was that the Reptile Man wears glasses when not performing.

The cast is very strong. Davie and Padgett sing beautifully, move well together, grow and change believably (and heartbreakingly), and have excellent chemistry. You can feel that they have been together in that intense way all their lives, and their various compromises, from wry to angry, are vivid. Ryan Silverman nicely manages the balance between charming and smarmy, and his version of "A Private Conversation" is passionate and touching. Matthew Hydzik is weak as Buddy, but it's a tough role, I think. Robert Joy oozes slime as the man who "owns" the twins for much of their young lives; he's genuinely scary. David St. Louis as Jake has odd body language that distracts from his singing; also, his love for Violet also doesn't come across. The impressive ensemble includes Brandon Bieber, Matthew Patrick Davis, Charity Dawson, Lauren Elder, Derek Hanson, Jordanna James, Guy Lockard, Kelvin Moon Loh, Barrett Martin, Con O'Shea-Creal, Don Richard, Blair Ross,  Hannah Shankman, Josh Walker, and DeLaney Westfall.

It's an amazing opportunity for a creative team to get a second chance on a large musical that lost a reported seven million dollars the first time around, and Condon, Russell, and Krieger take full advantage of it. I hope Side Show gets to Broadway and makes seven million this time around. (More would be fine too!)

(4th row orchestra, audience right, ~$50 with discount offer)

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