Once upon a time, there was a well-reviewed musical about the life of the conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton. Unfortunately it opened in a Broadway season that included the original production of Ragtime, the acclaimed Roundabout Theatre revival of Cabaret and some little Disney musical, oh, yes, The Lion King. Side Show played a total of 31 previews and 91 performances. It received a total of four Tony nominations, including the first and only time that two actresses were nominated jointly for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
Side Show has a small, yet very devoted following and it has had several regional theater productions. The Kennedy Center brings to Washington DC a revised production that originated at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California last winter. Featuring a revised book that places more emphasis on the Hilton sisters background and several new songs, this version of Side Show pulls on your heartstrings in ways that do not feel like a manipulation. The hopes and desires of two sisters, forever joined together, dreaming of different lives yet always returning to their strong sisterly bond is universal despite the sisters unique situation. Ironically, Side Show' s 1998 Tony rival (and winner of Best Musical) The Lion King is playing next door in the Kennedy Center's Opera House. Allow yourself to step inside the Eisenhower Theatre for an beautiful, melancholic evening.
The revised book (and lyrics) by Bill Russell, with additional book material contributed by the show's director Bill Condon shapes a story closer to the Hilton sisters real life. A new series of songs, music by Henry Krieger, illuminates the girls birth in England, adoption by the abusive "Auntie" and relates how they came to be in the legal guardianship of the owner of the Side Show, "Sir." The three men who help the girls leave 'Sir" for a career in vaudeville are slightly more fleshed out, motivations and secrets seem more clear. Some Broadway message boards lament the removal of the song "Tunnel of Love", but here, it's replacement "Coming Apart At The Seams" fills the same function as in the original.
One of the most stunning achievements is are costume (Paul Tazewell), wig and hair design (Charles G. LaPointe) and make-up design (Cookie Jordan) for the other members of the side show attraction. These elaborate designs must be quickly donned and removed several times and it is a remarkable achievement. In particular a revelation about one costume at the curtain call is a true "wow" moment.
Ryan Silverman is a showman with a torn conscience as Terry Connor. Matthew Hydzik well-meaning despite a character development that is apparently more clear than in the original production. Their affections for the girls, is well matched by David St. Louis as Jake, the "Cannibal King" who truly loves the girls, particularly Violet just the way they are. Mr. St. Louis has a strong voice that is occasionally betrayed by less than crisp vocals. Robert Joy is appropriately slimy as Sir.
Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are well-matched as the Hilton sisters. There are moments when the action seems to revolve around them rather than include them, but the skillful choreography (Anthony Va Laast) and Mr. Condon's direction use the actresses ability to be both individual personalities and yet forced to move as a single unit. Ms. Davie (Violet) is occasional overpowered by Ms. Padgett (Daisy) when the duets call for belting. Perhaps a bit more focus on blending their rather beautiful voices would fix this minor problem with their performances.
The Kennedy Center is to be commended for helping bring Side Show back in a major retooling. Perhaps with good word of mouth they will get the sold out houses that this production richly deserves.
Side Show is being performed in The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre through July 13, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit kennedy-center.org.