NY Theater Review Sandi Durell
“Come look at the Freaks . . .” the opening number will grab your attention from the moment the lights go up in this newly imagined and revised production by super-director Bill Condon (film Dreamgirls) of this 17 year old Bill Russell/Henry Krieger musical, with creative set design by David Rockwell, currently at the St. James Theatre.
It’s the 1920s/1930s story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who were exploited from birth when their unwed Mum gave them away, raised by “auntie” and then sold to her side show devious ringmaster husband “Sir” (an eerie Robert Joy) who brought them to America, subjugated them as pieces of property, putting them out as freaks in his traveling circus show of misfits. Originally played by Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the 1997 musical, that didn’t last long, this Daisy and Violet (Emily Padgett and Erin Davie) could actually be twins – their appearance so very much alike, their gorgeous voices and movement in perfect sync.
The opening scene has all the gawking wonders a side show offers, including the bearded lady, the dog boy, midget Cossacks, the geek and his bloody chicken – all the odd birds one would expect. And it had the lovely Hilton sisters, stars of the show. But underneath it all, they just wanted what all young girls want – love! (“Typical Girls Next Door”) Their personalities were very different; Daisy an outgoing go-getter flirt seeking fame, Violet more reticent seeking stability.
When smooth-talking “Very Well Connected” Terry (a solid voiced Ryan Silverman) comes along and offers them a chance at real success in vaudeville on the Orpheum circuit, it’s a heady proposal they cannot resist. Terry’s sidekick performer-dancer Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) isn’t too sure but goes along with the idea, as does the girls’ unofficial caretaker Jake (an amazing sounding/looking David St. Louis) who secretly loves Daisy.
Sir, as the girls’ official guardian, takes them to court attempting to halt their exit and save his meal ticket, which doesn’t fly because of Jake’s testimony. So it’s “Say Goodbye to the Sideshow” as Daisy begins to fall for Terry – “Feelings You’ve Got to Hide”
There’s a throwback scene as the younger girls visit doctors willing to “Cut Them Apart” but that would have ended their circus fame and Sir’s income. As they climb the ladder of success, carefully orchestrated by Terry, love seemingly blooms between Violet and Buddy who offers to marry her, as they return to Texas (where it all began) in an elaborate football field wedding ceremony for 60,000 viewers to create more spectacle that doesn’t quite end happily. At this point, Terry is hopelessly in love with Daisy (“Marry Me, Terry”) but won’t take the plunge until the girls consider another medical offer of separation.
All the while, Daisy and Violet are enjoying the upward climb to stardom and they’re “Ready to Play” in their sophisticated sensational clothing and costumes, that evoke that success, cleverly designed by Paul Tazewell (make-up design Cookie Jordan) that enables them to constantly be moving in tandem, joined at the hip, while singing and dancing (uniquely choreographed by Anthony Van Laast). They perform a magical costume change at the top of Act 2 “Stuck With You”/”Leave Me Alone.”
There’s a sensational fantasy number “Private Conversation” between Daisy and Terry, and an adorable bedroom scene reminiscent of Cabaret’s ‘Two Ladies’ called “One Plus One Equals Three.”
Even Houdini (Javier Ignacio, who also plays Dog Boy) gets a moment when he performs his feats and, in real life, was responsible for teaching the girls how to have privacy by learning to meditate.
The second act recounts the glamour days of Daisy and Violet, lavish parties and clothes, as Tod Browning (Don Richard, who plays multiple roles) comes along from MGM to put the girls in Hollywood films, namely Freaks, continuing what they hoped they’d leave behind, sealing their fate if the show is to go on.
This beautifully haunting production evokes a river of emotions and will pull at your heartstrings.
Side Show has what audiences want – passion, meaningful music and lyrics, creativity and vision – and two super songs: “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You.”
*Photos: Joan Marcus
St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, Manhattan, 212-239-6200, www.sideshowbroadway.com Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes