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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Side Show
La Jolla Playhouse


Emily Padgett and Erin Davie
The questions that easily come to mind when considering a "re-imagined" version of a musical that has already been staged on Broadway and regionally are, "Did they change a lot?" and "Did the changes improve the show?" In the case of Side Show, which is running through December 15 at La Jolla Playhouse, the answers are both yes, even if the second yes is a tentative one.

One way of measuring revisions is to compare song lists between versions. Doing so yields a substantial list of songs that were cut from the original and replaced with new ones. I've provided a song list from the program at the end of the review. (In addition, "Say Goodbye to the Freak Show" is now titled, "Say Goodbye to the Sideshow," and "New Year's Day" is now titled "New Year's Eve.") In a move deemed important to the storyline, "I Will Never Leave You" is now performed for the first time in act one, thus making its appearance at the end of the show a reprise. By my count, lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger wrote thirteen new songs to replace the eight that were cut. There are 27 songs listed in the program, so the new ones constitute roughly half of the show's music.

The changes in the book were, according to the program essay, primarily done at the prodding of director Bill Condon. These revisions attempted to shape the dramatic line and help events in the story to make better sense, particularly in terms of the characters' motivations. The major revision has resulted in replacing the side show Boss with a character named Sir (Robert Joy). Sir is the legal guardian of Violet (Erin Davie) and Daisy (Emily Padgett) Hilton, the conjoined twins who are at the heart of the story. Based on the Hilton twins actual history, Sir married the woman to whom the twins were sold at birth, and when she died he successfully petitioned the court to grant him guardianship. The twins were working as the star attraction in his "freak show" thinking that they could never leave him.

Because of this plot revision, the story makes a stop at court, where Terry Connor (Manoel Felciano) and Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) help the twins win emancipation from Sir (and, in the process, win the hearts of Daisy and Violet). When Sir reappears at the end of the show, his menace is, appropriately enough, rather toothless.

The other major plot revision involves the reason for Buddy's hesitation to marry Violet after blurting out a proposal to her at a New Year's Eve party that occurs at the height of the twins' popularity as performers. I won't reveal the reason, but suffice it to say that the story maintains its sharp identification with people who feel like "freaks," for whatever reason. And the changes also affect Jake (David St. Louis), the twins' protector at the side show who joins them as a personal manager as they ride the arc of show business fame. When Jake confesses (out of the blue, to my mind) that he has always loved Violet, her response no longer focuses on how society would accept a marriage between an African-American man and a white woman. Instead, she lets Jake know that she has always loved him as a friend but no more than that.

In fact, the storyline focuses on how the ability to love overcomes both past misdeeds and the feeling that one is a freak, or out of touch with the norm. The ability to love becomes the theme of the sung-through portions of the show, because it is easier to accept such passion in overheated music than in overheated dialogue. And, to be honest, the overheated music and lyrics constitutes a big part of Side Show's cult appeal. The emotions are big, and the music matches them.

The performances have to be big to keep up, and not all of them are. Mr. St. Louis suffers especially from being understated; if only Tony nominee Keala Settle, who burns as a bright flame in the ensemble, could have played his role. Mr. Felciano and Mr. Hydzik, both of charm and fine voice, also struggle with finding a consistently appropriate tone to play.

While these inconsistencies might be laid at the feet of Mr. Condon, who seems to be full of good ideas but who may be inexperienced at helping stage actors with their performances, they don't seem to affect Ms. Davie and Ms. Padgett as Violet and Daisy. Both move easily together (and to Anthony Van Laast's choreography), and temperamentally they ride the emotional highs and lows of the twins' journey without going over the top. They also handle the demands of the score with individual grace and collective shimmer.

The technical aspects of the production are all first rate. I'd single out Paul Tazewell's sometimes stylish, sometimes silly, costumes, Greg Jarrett's crisp musical direction, and Kai Harada's clear-as-a-bell sound design for special praise.

Was all the effort worth the trouble? Probably. Character development seems better motivated, so the story flows more logically, and the substitution of new songs for old ones keep the show from dragging. Even so, Side Show will probably always have a cult popularity, but now the rest of us can better see what the fuss was about.

Side Show, Tuesdays Sundays through December 15, 2013, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the La Jolla Playhouse campus. Tickets may be obtained by calling Patron Services at (858) 550-1010 or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org. The production will play at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in Wasington, D.C. June 14 July 13, 2014.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Side Show, book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger, additional book material by Bill Condon. Produced in association with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Directed by Mr. Condon with choreography by Anthony Van Laast, scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Paul Tazewell, lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound design by Kai Harada. Greg Jarrett served as music director and conductor.

The principal cast consists of Erin Davie, Emily Padgett, Manoel Felciano, Matthew Hydzik, and David St. Louis. Ensemble members are Keala Settle, Brandon Bieber, Matthew Patrick Davis, Lauren Elder, Javier Ignacio, Kelvin Moon Loh, Zonya Love, Barrett Martin, Don Richard, Blair Ross, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Hannah Shankman, David Kirk Grant, and Michelle London.

Revised list of musical numbers:

Act One

"Come Look at the Freaks"
"Like Everyone Else"
"Very Well Connected"
"The Devil You Know"
"Typical Girls Next Door"
"You Should Thank Me Every Day"
"Cut Them Apart/I Will Never Leave You"
"All in the Mind"
"Come See a New Land"
"Feelings You've Got to Hide"
"What a Fascinating Pair"
"Say Goodbye to the Sideshow"
"Brother! Brother"
"Ready to Play"
"The Interview/Buddy Kissed Me"
"Who Will Love Me as I Am?"

Act Two

"Stuck with You/Leave Me Alone"
"New Year's Eve"
"A Private Conversation"
"1 + 1 = 3"
"Sideshow"
"Almost as Famous as Them"
"You Should Be Loved"
"Our New Beginning"
"Marry Me, Terry"
"I Will Never Leave You"
"Come Look at the Freaks"


Photo: Kevin Berne

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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