When it first opened on Broadway in 1997, Side Show was a very different production from the one that is currently playing at the Kennedy Center. This Side Show ups the ante with new characters, new music, and new choreography, that add up to a completely fresh production.
What remains the same is that Side Show tells the touching story of conjoined twins the Hiltons, Violet (Erin Davie) and Daisy (Emily Padgett), born in England in the early twentieth century. With book and lyrics by Bill Russell, the musical shows how the girls' adoptive mother exploited them, working with cruel carnival manager Sir (Robert Joy), to display them in a circus sideshow. Early on, two men enter the sisters' life: a talent scout, Terry (Ryan Silverman) and vocal coach, Buddy (Matthew Hydzik). With their energy and influence, the girls throw off Sir's stranglehold and become popular vaudeville stars.
Adding supplemental material to the book, director Bill Condon crafts Side Show into a polished character study, searching the depths of the sisters' emotional and psychological differences as they look for love and fame. Violet, who is shy, wants to "be like everyone else." Daisy, the extrovert, wants to be rich and adored. Condon wisely keeps their differences apparent, always on the edge of being divisive, but not explosive. Beneath those differences, Violet and Daisy's love for each other gives them the strength to face the challenges of their situation.
Condon's vision is particularly on display in the opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks," sung by Sir and a variety of "Attractions," which reveals Violet's and Daisy's real home, a place peopled by affectionate but unusual fellow inhabitants: Bearded Lady, Reptile Man, Tattoo Girl, Three Legged Man, and many more. Emphasizing the uniqueness of these characters allows director Bill Condon to keep Side Show from being a sad "behind-the-scenes" musical about two human beings who exist to be gawked at by strangers. Instead, Condon plays with notions of perfection and imperfection, normalcy and abnormality. As the charming Harry Houdini (Javier Ignacio) muses in his mellow tenor, "Strange? What's wrong with that?"
Henry Krieger's original score received acclaim for certain show-stopping numbers ("Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You"). Those numbers are still in this production, sung with power and authority by Davie and Padgett. The womens' voices blend easily. Padgett's voice has a bell-like clarity while Davie's possesses an intriguing depth.
Apart from Violet and Daisy, one of the most fascinating characters in Side Show is Jake (David St. Louis), a man who looks after the sisters from their earliest days in the carnival. St. Louis is a dynamic presence and has an extraordinarily strong voice. Jake's passionate declaration of love to Violet ("You Should Be Loved"), is one of the musical's high points.
The energy of Side Show is due in large part to the precise and fiery work of choreographer Anthony Van Laast, who introduces marvelous soft-shoe numbers, waltzes, and even a tap routine for a priest and two altar boys.
Paul Tazewell's costumes mimic the breadth of the Side Show experience: fantastical costumes for the "Attractions;" imaginative period suits for Buddy and Terry; a charming array of dresses for Violet and Daisy, moving from simple cotton housedresses to elegant, wide-legged satin pants and velvet and chiffon gowns.
David Rockwell's set emphasizes the theatricality of the sisters' lives. Rockwell mirrors the arc of the sisters' adventures, by beginning in the dark, grimy circus and ending in a glittering arena before thousands of people. To create this emphasis, Rockwell inventively flies arches of growing size onto the stage to show the young women performing before larger and larger crowds across America.
With its unusual mixture of poignancy and humor, Side Show comes across as both more expansive and more focused than the 1997 version. A compelling musical, it cannot be classified as comic or tragic and it has nothing to do with sensationalism or the grotesque. It is a unique work, propelled by credible, moving visions of love. And by Violet's and Daisy's ultimate dedication to each other.