REVIEW: Side Show, St James Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Side Show The Musical on Broadway

Side Show
St James Theatre
1 November 2014
5 Stars

The conjoined twins are singing. They are both beautiful and joined at the hip. One has a brassy, rich, soprano belt which may well be able to shatter glass, so focussed and sure is its power. This is Violet. The other has a purer soprano, an almost bel canto feel to her shimmering, glorious sound; equally powerful, it might shatter glass too, but in a different way. This is Daisy.

Together, they are the Hilton Twins. Two individuals bound by birth into one. As the song reaches its spine-tingling conclusion, the lighting of the scrim behind them changes, and into view come key members of the Sideshow attractions who have worked and lived with the twins for years. Their family. They are watching tentatively, as the twins step into a new chapter of their life.

As the thrilling final notes of Who Will Love Me As I Am echo around the auditorium, this matinee audience goes wild, a standing ovation for the end of the first Act, a quite unusual event for a Broadway audience.

But entirely deserved.

Bill Condon's ingenious, spirited, and tender revision of Side Show, the 1997 musical (book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Harry Krieger) which ran for about 90 performances and was widely considered a flop, although it developed a cult following, is now in previews at Broadway's St James Theatre. It will be considered a revival for the Tony Awards, presumably, but what Condon has done here bears little resemblance to the original.

It shares themes and characters and a deal of material, but the approach is entirely different and there are new characters, scenes and songs. At least nine new songs have been introduced (or reworked substantially from the original); nine numbers from the original production are excised. There are new arrangements and orchestrations – Musical director Sam Davis and Orchestrator Harold Wheeler augment and improve David Chase's original arrangements. The orchestra is first rate.

On any rational view of it, this is not a revival but a complete re-imagining of the original work. It is not an attempt to recapture the magic of a first run or to cash in on an established success. It is a completely new creation, in terms of content, style and tone, and unlike its predecessor, its purpose is clear, focussed and spectacularly realised.

Steeped firmly in the worlds of vaudeville, burlesque and the dawn of the motion picture industry, Condon shows another side to the world musical theatre-going audiences are familiar with from Gypsy. The story is told in retrospect; the opening image invokes the film Freaks, in which the twins star, and so you know at the start where you and they will finish. The journey is the key thing.

The central themes which underpin both story and score involve questions of identity, acceptance of one's true self as the only road to happiness and sanity, and knowing how to get the best out of one's life. Equally, and uncompromisingly, racism, sexism, homophobia, and emotional abuse and exploitation are threaded through the twins' tale and, in this version, exposed as the pernicious cancers they are.

So: a fascinating story, equal parts hope and despair, insightful, and resonant in today's modern experience. It has much to teach, not just about the Hilton twins but about ourselves and the way we treat, and judge, each other. And the vibrant, melodious, and quite intoxicating score helps keep those thoughts in mind, long after you are home from the theatre, clinging to you as joyful refrains do.

Daisy and Violet are conjoined twins, and their guardian, Sir, puts them to work as part of his Side Show attraction. For a dime, punters can catch glimpses of the rare exotic oddities Sir exploits, feeds and houses: a bearded lady, a human pin cushion(yes, you see a pin go into a massive pectoral muscle and draw blood), a Dog Boy, a tattooed woman, a Geek with a penchant for drinking warm chicken blood (from chickens whose heads he has just ripped from their bodies), a fortune teller, a wild cannibal, a lizard man, a half-man half-woman, a three legged man, a living Venus de Milo and some height-challenged Cossacks.

The twins are adored by their Side Show family, so when a flashy, smooth-talking, very handsome agent, Terry, comes to offer to get them a contract for the Orpheum Circuit, the family is divided about what they should do. They squabble as any real, caring family would. The Conservative notion of “family” has no application here.

Sir opposes their move, but the twins decide to go with Terry and his choreographer/performer pal, Buddy, to try their luck. Jake, who plays the cannibal in the Side Show, goes too. This decision brings the Side Show disaster, and while the twins flourish, their friends starve.

Violet falls in love with Buddy; Daisy would like to love Terry, or anyone really, but Terry does not seem interested. Their act succeeds despite their personal situation. Then Buddy proposes to Violet, which comes as a shock to Violet, to Terry, to Daisy and the man with whom Buddy has been having a sexual liaison. But Violet knows nothing of the truth about Buddy's sexuality and accepts his hand in marriage, and Terry runs with it, ensuring that the wedding will achieve maximum national publicity – he sees it as a ticket to Hollywood.

The approach of the impending nuptials brings many feelings to the surface. Terry realises he is in love with Daisy but wants her on her own. Jake declares to Violet that he has always loved her, a fact known to everyone except Violet and a fact that radiates unspoken horror at the thought of a black and white union. When she rejects him, Jake leaves the twins to find another path. Daisy realises that she does not really want to be part of a ménage a trois, even though she wants her sister to be happy.

Despite conflicting medical advice, the twins question whether they should stay conjoined or take the risk of an operation that might kill either or both of them. The stakes are high.

But, at the steps of the altar, Buddy comes to his senses and refuses to go ahead with the marriage, refuses to hide his true self any further. Terry wants a wedding to happen and, for expediency and their careers, Daisy agrees – but Terry will only marry Daisy if she and Violet agree to have the separation operation.

As they dither, a movie mogul arrives to offer the twins a contract for a movie. But it is conditional upon them remaining whole. Realising that the only way forward is for Buddy to get his “pansy arse” in line, Terry blows Buddy's cover in a fit of rage, demanding that he marry Violet as the publicity bandwagon requires, and shows the twins, clearly, that he is only interested in himself, not them.

With the help of some of their old friends from the Side Show, the twins escape Terry's clutches and go to Hollywood, vowing that neither will ever leave the other. They have accepted their true nature – they are separate but together, and they always will be. The film is made, and the musical ends as it started – with an exhortation to come look at the freaks.

Except, by then, quite who is a freak is not as simplistic a question as one might have thought at the start of the show. Terry is the real freak, but no one is looking at him. The twins and their Side Show family: they are the ones we want to know and love. But they don't fit the notion of “freaks” – they are not that in our eyes anymore.

Condon's vision here and his meticulous attention to the detail of the narrative and the characters is both remarkable and utterly inspired. He is a true theatrical visionary. If this production does not put Side Show in the upper echelon of the American musical theatre repertoire, there is simply no justice in the world.

The casting is faultless. Every single member of the company is astonishingly talented. The ensemble singing and dancing is top tier.

Anthony Van Laast's choreography is engaging, ebullient and insightful. There is a moment in the 11 o'clock number, I Will Never Leave You, where the twins separate as part of the choreography, proving, clearer than any words could, that they have found and accepted their own individuality within their dual singularity. It is quite magical.

Some of the cameo roles deserve special attention. As the Geek, Matthew Patrick Davis is quite extraordinary; a perfect rendering of a simple, gentle soul forced by his appearance to do awful things. His stoop, manner of walking and twitchy fear – all perfectly realised. Charity Angel Dawson brings a seething, bubbling, overripe cheerfulness to her turn as the hopeful Fortune Teller.

Javier Ignacio is superb as Houdini and his number, All In The Mind, shows Daisy and Violet the way to escape into their inner thoughts when they need to find solitude, to concentrate on their own self. Barrett Martin plays Ray, Buddy's secret lover; the scene where Buddy proposes to Daisy shows Martin at his very best – a desolate, broken, silent portrait of humiliation, incomprehension and distress. Terrific.

As Sir, Robert Joy is the Thernadier of the piece, all opportunistic malcontent. He embraces Sir's darkness wholeheartedly, so much so that, when he returns, broken and desperate in Act Two, it is a true measure of the twins' capacity for forgiveness that they get him a job as a tea boy on the film set. By then, they are capable of more clearly judging his misdeeds and forgiving them.

Although his turn as the cannibal is more silly than scary, perhaps deliberately, David St Louis establishes himself as a legitimate Broadway leading man as Jake. He conveys much with silence and his simple presence and he effortlessly portrays his deep, abiding adoration for Violet. He shows the effect of racism without labouring the point. His big number, You Should Be Loved, rightly stops the show. It's a truly fabulous turn.

Matthew Hydzik is marvellous as Buddy, the handsome, closeted hoofer who genuinely loves the twins, especially Violet. The pain of his inability to be true to himself is clear, but there is no self-indulgence in the performance; Hydzik is crisp, clear and genuinely superb. The gloriously silly Follies number which opens Act Two, Stuck With You, and the even more enchantingly cod One Plus One Equals Three (a kind of raunch-absent evocation of Cabaret's Two Ladies, complete with two sets of garish, gold Lycra clad cherubs) expertly show off his song and dance skills. He is perfect in every way.

Ryan Silverman, tall, dashing, with a sensational Broadway voice and matinee idol looks, makes every second count as Terry. He keeps the facade of niceness and sincerity alive until the very final moment, when his explosive outburst about Buddy man-ing up declares his hand as the true villain of the piece. It comes as a real, awful shock. Before that, though, he is sheer delight, sincerity itself – he really makes you believe that he cares for the twins and his best friend. He hides his inner leech magnificently. And his star turn, Private Conversation, is a proper, black-tie, old fashioned routine where he dazzles like a diamond. As excellent a leading man as could be hoped for by any Broadway cast.

I expect many people will have a favourite twin. Alas, that is often the nature of twins. But, here, both seemed triumphant in every possible way.

Emily Padgett's Daisy is perfection. Frail, erotic, headstrong, offhand, engaging, Padgett's characterisation is detailed and immensely likeable. She plays the sincerity card with aplomb, but you can always see the volatile Ace up her sleeve. She shines especially brightly in Marry Me Teddy, every note an ache, every word a desperate cadence.

There is a weary acceptance and a brash insouciance about Erin Davies' Violet which is completely seductive. She seems both the prettier, surer twin and the one with the least self-esteem. It's a gorgeous turn, full of petulance, resignation and peace. An enigmatic, utterly adorable performance.

Both Padgett and Davies sing the score with passion, verve and spellbinding vocal dynamics. They blend beautifully, each keeping their own voice, their own presence, but creating a unique, extraordinary and quite mind blowing togetherness. Each of their big numbers is a complete sensation: Ready To Play, Who Will Love Me As I Am?, and I Will Never Leave You. It's been a long time since Broadway has heard duets sung with such power, such unabashed skill and with such terrific non-competitive bravura gusto.

Neither Davies nor Padgett, rightly, tries to outdo the other. Both seek to be perfectly in sync throughout the performance. They are utterly extraordinary. I would give them the joint Tony Award for Best Actress now.

Happily, Tunnel of Love is absent from this version, although echoes of the music, not the staging, are to be found in A Great Wedding Show. This is Condon's great gift to this production and to the musical itself – he leaves in what worked and adds what it needed to make the show soar.

It's an extraordinary achievement. If you love musical theatre, roll up, roll up. You won't see anything like it anywhere else – and it is world class entertainment.

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