NEW YORK (AP) — After the favorably reviewed musical "Side Show" closed its original three-month Broadway run in 1997, swallowing a $7 million loss for its producers, it still garnered four Tony Award nominations.
Potential audience members stayed away because the idea of seeing the story of real-life British conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton onstage seemed disturbing. Seventeen years later, so-called "freaks" are in vogue on TV and "The Elephant Man" is about to begin a Broadway revival.
Author-lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger ("Dreamgirls") have reworked the music, adding orchestrations by Tony-winner Harold Wheeler and musical direction by Sam Davis. With a live orchestra performing the gorgeous score and inventive direction by Academy Award-winner Bill Condon ("Chicago" and "Dreamgirls") who also contributed additional book material, the reimagined "Side Show" that opened Monday night at the St. James Theatre is a stunning, soaring, must-see musical.
The conjoined twins are vividly portrayed in their youth, during Depression-era 1920s and early '30s, by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett. A noir freak show introduces the strong cast, led by a pasty-faced Robert Joy as the gleefully odious manager. The rest of the sideshow attractions stomp resentfully onstage, darkly singing "Come Look at the Freaks."
The girls then appear angelically, high on a platform above. Star attractions in the seedy show, they're cheaply outfitted but clearly talented, and Padgett and Davie harmonize beautifully while creating distinct personalities for the twins. Padgett is a feisty and outgoing Daisy, restless yet loving toward her sister. Davie gives Violet a softer, more romantic personality, often delicately expressive.
Scenes from their Dickensian childhood and the distraction of media attention as they attain success add poignancy to their close relationship. The girls are sweet and endearing, as embodied in their lovely signature duet, "I Will Never Leave You." They want to be like everyone else, per the ironic number "Typical Girls Next Door," but their obvious difference is given a humorous, if at times heartbreaking coloration through much of the show.
The twins consider setting out for the vaudeville circuit, courtesy of handsome talent scout Terry, (Ryan Silverman, dashing and a little mysterious), and his pal Buddy, (an earnest, boyish Matthew Hydzik), who is alienated in his own way by staying in the closet. In jaunty dance numbers, the girls comically pretend to try to go in different directions, but things turn serious when one of them falls in love and their romantic aspirations threaten their lifelong, loving closeness.
Condon's imaginative staging includes a nightmarish flashback to the girls' childhood exploitation at the hands of mercenary adults, using menacing shadow productions of doctors who threatened to surgically separate them. Another creative scene involves a vaudevillian portrayal of both girls in bed with one man, singing the bawdy number, "One Plus One Equals Three," just one of many references to the salacious view of the twins by the media.
Whether wearing tattered dresses or sumptuous, sparkling gowns, all designed by Paul Tazewell, Padgett and Davie are always riveting to watch. In the final scene, voluntarily facing yet another arena of exploitation, the twins reflect sadly, "Are we ever to learn/why we've lived as two." Thanks to Krieger's memorable melodies and the stellar cast, the audience will be thinking about the same thing.