Side Show

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Photo: Joan Marcus Review
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the old saying goes. But what do you do if it is? In the case of musical theater, “revising” the show doesn’t always end up being the solution. (Let’s just recall the 2002 Broadway production of “Flower Drum Song”.) However, in the case of 1997’s “Side Show,” now at the St. James Theatre, award-winning director Bill Condon and original writers Bill Russell and Henry Kreiger have re-thought (and re-written) so much of this startling work with such intelligence and flair that they’ve turned this problematic “cult favorite” into one of the most emotionally wrenching and altogether satisfying shows in many a moon. You can still “come look at the freaks” (to quote the show’s chilling opening number), but you’ll leave realizing how much we all share with real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (exquisitely played by Emily Padgett and Erin Davie).

When we first meet them here, they are trapped as the lead attractions in a traveling side show (perfectly designed by David Rockwell) run by their abusive legal guardian Sir (chillingly embodied by Robert Joy), devoid of any joy or real hope.Unsurprisingly, though the Hilton girls – who are literally joined at the hip – long to be “like everybody else.” As we discover, that phrase means something different to each twin; Daisy would love to be famous and rich, while Violet dreams of being a homebody with a loving husband.

Both girls’ aspirations, unlikely as they seem, might be realized once they meet Terry Connor (the superb Ryan Silverman), a slick. Handsome, fast-talking vaudeville producer who oozes tons of charm without an ounce of sincerity, and his pal, singer-dancer Buddy Foster (an engaging Matthew Hydzik), a sweet-natured guy whom we eventually discover isn’t quite so different from Violet. The men do fulfill their promise of making the twins worldwide stars, but when it comes down to making the ladies’ personal dreams come true, it turns out having feelings (even love) can’t overcome obstacles, visible and otherwise.

Russell’s new script makes the show’s still-unhappy ending even more believable – and sadder – than before. He also emphasizes both the personal and political implications of the story, notably that Violet would never have considered marriage to Jake (the absolutely sensational David St. Louis), the African-American man who has been her longtime protector, and whose love for Violet is truly unconditional.

Russell and Krieger have deleted more than half of the show’s original score, while keeping its best numbers, including the rousing “The Devil You Know,” Terry’s anguished “Private Conversation,” (given a bravura rendition by Silverman) and Jake’s powerful “You Should Be Loved” (stirringly delivered by St. Louis). Conversely, many of the vaudeville numbers for the girls are new (enhanced by Paul Tazewell’s delicious period costumes), and the twins now get a larger backstory, which even includes a brief if memorable appearance by Harry Houdini (Javier Ignacio).

Most importantly, though, what remains intact are the twins’ unforgettable duets, “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You,” sung with enormous passion and gorgeous harmony by Padgett and Davie. (How they differ vocally from the roles’ originators, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, is not really worth discussing.) These brilliant actresses also manage to stress how different Daisy and Violet are temperamentally, yet how their true emotional connection could never be severed. They may be “stuck” with each other, but as “Side Show” ultimately reminds us, the human condition is to want someone at your side (literally or not) through the best and worst of times.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Erin Davie, Emily Padgett, Matthew Hydzik, Robert Joy, Ryan Silverman, David St. Louis

Open/Close Dates
Opening 11/17/2014
Closing 1/4/2015

Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 10/28/2014
Closing Open-ended

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Theatre Info
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036