Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 17, 2014
Side Show Book and lyrics by Bill Russell. Music by Henry Krieger. Additional book material by Bill Condon. Directed by Bill Condon. Choreographed by Anthony Van Laast. Musical direction and arrangements by Sam Davis. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Special make-up effects design by Dave Elsey & Lou Elsey. Wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Make-up design by Cookie Jordan. Illusion design by Paul Kieve. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Cast: Erin Davie, Emily Padgett, Matthew Hydzik, Robert Joy, Ryan Silverman, David St. Louis, Brandon Andrus, Brandon Bieber, Matthew Patrick Davis, Charity Angel Dawson, Lauren Elder, Derek Hanson, Javier Ignacio, Jordanna James, Isaiah Johnson, Kelvin Moon Loh, Barrett Martin, Con O'Shea-Creal, Don Richard, Blair Ross, Hannah Shankman, Michaeljon Slinger, Josh Walker, Delaney Westfall.
How, you may wonder, could the 1997 Bill RussellHenry Krieger musical Side Show, variously considered either one of the most brilliant flops of the last few decades or the worst idea ever to open on the Main Stem, return to Broadway in a production designed to arouse mild indifference at best and grating agitation at worst? And how could one of the smartest and most subversive tuners of the last 20 years be rethought, rewritten, and restaged so as to become utterly mindless, heartless, and soulless?
What's just opened at the St. James is such a pallid imitation of the vibrant original that one can't help but wonder whether librettist-lyricist Russell and composer Krieger, now also working with librettist-director Bill Condon, shouldn't have also added the title to the lengthy list of things they changed. The basics remain intact; performing conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton are still the central characters, and we follow their rise from a touring Texas freak show to the heights of Depression-era fame. But everything else is different, and much, much worse.
At its premiere, Side Show was defined by its unusual combination of subject matter and presentation. It fused the Off-Broadway musical resurgence of the time that was launching the careers of the likes of Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, and Adam Guettel with traditional Broadway talents (Krieger had written the mainstream and yet adventurous Dreamgirls and The Tap Dance Kid) taking on 1930s musical forms as filtered through state-of-the-art musical theatre, the pop opera craze in mid-decline, and a bizarre subject in a way that should only have resulted in a confused mess.
It was held together by its firm focus on the theme of identity. Daisy and Violet struggling to love themselves and each other while coping with the press and the personal and professional advances of vaudeville promoter Terry Connor and ambitious usher Buddy Foster, was itself a dynamic subject. Nearly everything being sung through granted it all an epic sweep that positioned the twins within a grander, more important context. Robert Longbottom's direction cemented this with an absolute cry for inclusion, spotlighting the real people beneath all the terrifying exteriors and insisting that those who couldn't tolerate others' differences were, in fact, the biggest freaks of all. Thrilling, star-cementing performances from Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley, Norm Lewis, Jeff McCarthy, and Hugh Panaro were the last necessary flourish.
Far more destructive, however, are the rewrites. The cutting of some, but not all, of the sung dialogue, leaving a jagged path through the libretto, is damaging enough. But in explaining away every minute detail, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to determine from available information where the twins came from or how they interrelate, Russell and Condon have not only obliterated ambiguity, but sucked up time that was once better used establishing and developing the characters.
As a result, the two are now functionally identical and personality-free, Violet's longing for family and Daisy's show-biz aspirations paid lip service at best. Worse, what used to be the central narrative arc, Violet and Daisy coming to understand, respect, and love each other despite their trials, is shattered, because we're no longer able to witness their progress from emotional children to bickering "teenagers" to adults who decide their loves and hates for themselves.
Absent that, Side Show is now about nothing except the roller-coaster lives of the twins, a shallow and meaningless story. Some attempts have been made to reintroduce lost tensions: Buddy is now gay, and Terry tries to convince Violet and Daisy to medically separate, which he feels he needs before he can marry Daisy. But all of this is spelled out with such glaring, gleaming neon that it's not a satisfactory replacement for the more compelling psychological and societal pressures it replaces.
The pieces left of the original score are the current evening's strongest elements, with the argumentative "The Devil You Know" (in which Jake, the twins' African-American friend and backstage protector, warns them against accepting Terry and Buddy's promise of fame and glory) and the haunting "Private Conversation" (Teddy's imaginary assignation with a Violet-free Daisy) faring best. But many good numbers, with Krieger's snappiest tunes and Russell's wittiest lyrics, have been swapped out for simplistic, one-dimensional snoozers that carry no detectable dramatic weight. ("One Plus One Equals Three," another straggling holdout, is so grotesque as choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, it probably should have been cut, too.)
The two big show-stoppers, slotted in at each act's finale, still go over, though it's due more to sound designer Peter Hylenski's volume knob than serial mixers Davie and Padgett belting them to success. Insufficient vocals aside, for "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You" to really work, Daisy and Violet's personal and joint evolution must capture you. Because nothing remains of it now, these are just pretty songs and not searing expressions of desperate feeling. (Adding in a shorter version of "I Will Never Leave You" at an earlier moment further saps it of its revelatory relevance.)
Davie and Padgett can't work with what the libretto no longer gives them, and turn in criminally dull performances, Davie edging out slightly ahead only because Violet remains more connected to her heart through her three-way tug-of-war with Daisy, Buddy, and Jake. Ryan Silverman sings decently as Terry, but is stiff and disengaged, pointing his finger on every other line as though that conveys a forward-thinking nature. Matthew Hydzik is an amenable-enough Buddy, though he suffers because the character is no longer complex; and David St. Louis hits the essential marks as the brooding Jake, but falls short of the potential passion or excitement.
Perhaps most emblematic is Robert Joy. He works tirelessly, but is unable to make anything of the freak-show impresario who shepherds the Violet and Daisy to their big break. That's because he's now a victim of circumstance, practically a sympathetic figure, rather than the sneering, scheming avatar of public menace he was conceived to be. Rather than be tweaked, he's been upended and vivisected into oblivion, to the point that he's now completely harmless, completely inoffensive, and completely ineffective. In other words, just like everything else in this new Side Show.