Freak shows are very in these days.
Between the weekly dose of circus scares on FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show," to the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Elephant Man” starring Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper, the pinheads and bearded ladies of the Big Top’s sidelines are stepping front and center.
The latest in the freak show frenzy is the slick new revival of “Side Show,” now open at the St. James Theatre. Directed by the Oscar-winning Bill Condon (of the film versions of “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”), the musical tells the tale of Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins who long to find acceptance in the world outside of the carnival.
The story is based on the real-life Siamese twins of the same name – sideshow stars who toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1930s and starred in the 1932 film “Freaks.”
The wonderful Erin Davie and Emily Padgett star as Violet and Daisy, respectively. Though each dream of “walking down the street with no one noticing,” there’s friction amongst the twins in how they see each their future. Daisy wants fame; Violet, stability.
Enter Terry (Ryan Silverman) and Buddy (Matthew Hydzik), two smooth-talking producers who promise success on the Orpheum Circuit. Soon, our heroines are leaving behind their oppressive guardian Sir (the delightfully creepy Robert Joy) and their family of freaks for freedom and the possibility of the seemingly impossible: love.
Those who saw the original 1997 Broadway production might see Condon’s “Side Show” as more of a reworking than a revival. Composer Henry Krieger (“Dreamgirls) and lyricist Bill Russell (“Pageant”) have added 10 new songs. Russell and Condon have reworked the book extensively, clarifying, among other things, the cruel childhood that brought the sisters to the side show in the first place.
Many of the changes work, especially new numbers like “Ready to Play” and “Stuck With You,” which present Violet and Daisy at their vaudeville-best. (You’ll have a hard time taking your eyes off of Anthony Van Laast’s clever choreography).
But there are problems. A new Harry Houdini anecdote, meant to clarify how the girls learned to find solitude in their psyches, feels more like an unnecessary detour. The show has also yet to understand what to do with the subplot of Jake (the powerful David St. Louis), the girl’s black handler whose unrequited love for Violet never gets the exploration or complication it deserves.
What remains constant in both productions of “Side Show,” though, are the near flawless performances by its two leading ladies. Davie and Padgett (pictured below), like Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley before them, are masterful here. Each colors her twin with a distinguishable personality, yet gracefully moves together as a single unit.
You’ll innately identify with Violet and Daisy’s struggle for acceptance, and their desire for independence despite an overall fear of loneliness. But Davie and Pagett don’t get trapped in the weak moments. Any vulnerability they show is washed away when they hold hands, as if an electrical beam of strength is passing through them.
They sound great, too, with bright, bold vibratos on display in perfect harmony in showstoppers like “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” (both held over from the original production).
Silverman and Hydzik are lovely complements to Davie and Padgett, with their undeniable charisma on full display. Unfortunately, the book is structured so that neither gets to explore his character’s true intentions until late in the second act — a point at which is too late to warrant much compassion.
There’s not a weak link among our ensemble, who play, amongst other parts, our choir of freaks. They do an excellent job at establishing the community among society’s outcast, and transform “The Devil You Know” into an explosive standout in the show. They’re also given much to work with in Paul Tazewell’s rich, elaborate costumes — the details of which can be seen from the last row.
Still, there’s something amiss in this new “Side Show.” It could be the polish of Condon’s direction, which can leave you feeling empty. Or the production design itself, which appears far more grand and cinematic than the story can support. The danger never feels dangerous enough. The challenges, never that hard to overcome.
“Side Show” wasn’t a hit when it played on Broadway back in 1997. Despite its five Tony nominations, the show opened to mixed reviews and closed after only 91 performances. And though it has attracted a cult following through the years among the theater kids and the cabaret scene, “Side Show” has never achieved mainstream success.
Perhaps that will change with this revival. If ever there were a time for the freaks to snatch the spotlight, it would be now.
“Side Show,” at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street. Tickets: $49-$155. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.