Emily Padgett and Erin Davie in “Side Show.” | JOAN MARCUS
Fans of the original “Side Show” may be in for a jolt when they see the first-ever major revival, now at the St. James Theatre. After catching the new production, one such “freaks” freak –– who had seen the 1997 debut multiple times before it was shuttered a mere 10 weeks after opening on Broadway ––shook his head. “How could they cut ‘Tunnel Of Love?’ It was the best number in the show,” he lamented.
That’s hardly the only element altered from the legendary musical, based on the once-famous conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, forced into a traveling sideshow and searching for a normal life. For this production is not so much a revival as a full-on reboot.
Visionary dramatist Bill Condon (best known for directing the movie versions of “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) has helped Bill Russell retool the book, giving key characters richer backstories in an attempt to deepen the drama. The soaring, electrifying score is by Russell (lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music), who trimmed a few numbers and added others. No longer sung through like an opera, the endeavor is now a traditional book musical.
Revamped cult musical about conjoined twins gets its act together this time
With all due respect to die-hard superfans, the revisions have paid off big-time. This iteration of “Side Show” not only delivers all the thrills and chills you expect, but does so with an abundance of empathy and soul, unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.
For starters, the production is extremely tight, thanks in part to out-of-town stints at La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center. David Rockwell’s impressive set transitions seamlessly from grimy to glamorous. Stunning images of enlarged sepia-toned posters and newspapers underscore the sensationalism that surrounded the twins in the 1930s, and shadow puppetry vignettes amp up the action. Paul Kieve is credited with designing the nifty illusions.
The realistic looking freaks in the “odditorium” — a lizard man, a dog boy, a bearded lady, a man with three legs, miniature Cossack dancers, a human pin cushion, among others — look wondrously awesome. Quite a contrast to the original, which merely implied the physical deformities.
The main attraction, of course, is the duo of Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie), who, although joined at the hip, manage to sing and dance and look radiant. (Fun fact: their undergarments are reinforced with super-strong magnets to keep the twins well connected.)
Abused and treated like slaves since birth, they are soon rescued by a wily, handsome team of promoters, Terry (Ryan Silverman) and Buddy (Matthew Hydzik), who develop tender bonds with the girls even as they exploit them. After dance lessons, vocal coaching, and a makeover with spunky new hairstyles, the Hilton sisters become the highest paid performers on the vaudeville circuit. The transformation is dazzling.
As the beleaguered “freaks” seeking true love and validation under the unforgiving spotlight, Padgett and Davie are exceptional, keenly locating the emotional center of each character. Padgett brings a warm fragility to the fearless, fame-seeking Daisy, while Davie allows the shy, shrinking Violet to tap into a secret reservoir of strength. Any lack of physical resemblance is easily overlooked once the pair begins to sing — angelic and mellifluous, they sound as if they share the same DNA.
“Side Show” is more than just an eye-popping freak show. Perhaps too tidily, Daisy falls for Terry and Violet for Buddy, who returns her affection with a marriage proposal. Is it true love, does he pity her, or is it simply a publicity stunt? The fact that Buddy has a taste for men complicates matters further.
David St. Louis in “Side Show.” | JOAN MARCUS
In a rather force-fitted subplot, Jake, who in the sideshow was billed as the “Cannibal King” from the “inky jungles” of Africa, develops a crush on one of the girls. As delivered by a fervent David St. Louis, the thunderous ballad, “You Should Be Loved” is a showstopper.
Other outstanding numbers include the captivating opener, “Come Look at the Freaks,” the tearjerker “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” and “I Will Never Leave You,” a triumphant ode to codependency.
Ultimately, the endearingly sincere “Side Show” is a melodious celebration of misfits — and fits in perfectly with a Broadway populated by the likes of “Kinky Boots,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and “The Elephant Man.” As you might suspect, the overarching message is that, relatively speaking, we’re all freaks, whether three-legged or black or gay or, heck, even a gawking audience member. The money-grubbing Auntie (Blair Ross) and Sir (a delightfully smarmy Robert Joy) who mistreated the twins in their early days are even more grotesque than “God’s mistakes” in the sideshow tent.
As the tiny Cossack woman quips after Buddy makes an ingratiating speech, “He’s just as weird as the rest of us.”
SIDE SHOW | St. James Theatre | 246 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$155 at Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission