Side Show lets its freak flag fly with a glorious production that combines astounding visual artistry, a ripping yarn and a tingly emotional score, stirringly sung by the company, which is as heart-stopping as a high-flying aerialist act.
Step right up and prepare to be amazed by the two actors playing the real-life Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie) Hilton, conjoined twins who rose from a shoddy carnival attraction to vaudeville stars in Depression-era America. You may be acquainted with the Hilton sisters already from Tod Browning’s perverse 1932 horror classic Freaks, as well as the bevy of side show performers who surround the young women and form a close-knit family of outsiders.
Padgett and Davie, along with the rest of the superb cast, may not be as familiar. Side Show isn’t a star vehicle, but rather a star-making vehicle, as evidenced by the eerily symbiotic, yet singular performances by the leads. Their gestures and voices synchronize immaculately, especially in the soaring “Who Will Ever Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” but they also exquisitely delineate the separate qualities of the sisters—Daisy, driven and hungry for attention and fame; Violet, seeking stability and the serenity of home and marriage.
Their personalities and aspirations may differ, but they share, along with the other freaks, a desire to be really seen rather than stared at—to be understood as separate from their abnormalities.
What is poignant and beautiful about this splendidly reworked revival of the 1997 musical is how clearly it shows the paradox of being lonely even when, in the case of the Hilton sisters, you are joined at the hip. Loneliness and freedom are the dueling forces in Side Show, directed by Bill Condon with great feeling and a ringmaster’s sense of showmanship.
Bill Russell, lyricist and book writer, and Henry Krieger, composer, worked with Condon on additional songs and material that sharpens and deepens the story of Daisy and Violet, as well as the other characters who shape their lives.
Their backstory—a cruel upbringing in England that would make Sweeney Todd seem like a lullaby—is told in new series of songs that climax with a fortunate encounter with Houdini (the haunting Javier Ignacio, who is also shiveringly good as the carnival’s Dog Boy).
The magician is entranced and empathetic to the girls, teaching them in the otherworldly strains of the song “All in the Mind” that peace and escape is possible by breaking the chains in their heads.
Otherwise, their lives are an active nightmare, exploited by their guardian Sir (played with dissolute bravado by Robert Joy). Then, Daisy and Violet are discovered by vaudeville talent scout Terry (the Don Draper-handsome Ryan Silverman) and his sidekick song-and-dance man Buddy (Matthew Hydzik, ardently playing the conflicted and decent Buddy), who bring them fame but also complicate matters with the excruciating promise of a romantic life.
Of course, Violet doesn’t know until too late that she was always loved, by the protective “Cannibal Man” Jake (David St. Louis, in majestic voice).
The motivation behind these show business pros and potential romantic interests is also clarified in the revival. Terry’s anguish about Daisy is achingly expressed by Silverman in the powerhouse emotion of the song “A Private Conversation,” where he imagines having her all to himself. Buddy, as it turns out, shares in common with Violet an outsider’s status, since he leads a double life in an effort to conceal his sexuality.
Jake’s true feelings come to roaring life by St. Louis in the evangelical rhythms of “The Devil You Know” and “You Should Be Loved”—where he delineates all the ways she deserves devotion in swoon-worthy poetry.
Enough cannot be said about the look of the show, which alternates the ghoulish, can’t-look-away, shadow-struck world of the carnival with the slap-happy brightness and glitz of the vaudeville scenes. One number, “Stuck With You,” is a chipper, ironic play on the sister’s situation, combining tongue-in-cheek wordplay with slapstick moves that resembles the fantasy sequence in the second act of Follies.
No one is better at dressing a variety of bodies than Paul Tazewell—whether outfitting the twins in cute sailor suits or matching sleek, spangled ruby-colored gowns, they look spectacular and completely comfortable.
The same goes for the freaks, who Tazewell, Charles G. LaPointe and Cookie Jordan render completely believable and fascinating, but at the same time they are clothed and outfitted with dignity and flair, never exploited the way they are by outsiders.
Closes July 13, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours. 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $130
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The assemblage freaks are often seen lurking in the netherworld of the carnival, reinforcing the air of mysticism permeating the show. But they are singular sensations—Blair Ross as the Bearded Lady, Brandon Bieber as the 3 Legged Man, Hannah Shankman as Tattoo Girl, Don Richard as Reptile Man, Matthew Patrick Davis as the Geek (a sweetheart who bakes cakes), Kelvin Moon Loh as the Half-Man Half-Woman, Charity Dawson as the Fortune Teller, Lauren Elder as Venus di Milo, Jordanna Jones as the World’s Tiniest Cossack Woman, Josh Walker as the World’s Tiniest Cossack Man and Barrett Martin as the human Pin Cushion.
This brave production of Side Show asks that we boldly accept the fact that we are all freaks. We have all felt the cold eye of judgment, or that we are anything but normal, and despair that no one will see past our oddities and love us, only us.
Side Show . Book and lyrics by Bill Russell . Music by Henry Krieger, additional book material by Bill Condon . Directed by Bill Condon . Musical Direction: Same Davis . Choreography: Anthony Van Laast . Featuring Ryan Silverman, Erin Davie, Emily Padgett, Robert Joy, Blair Ross, Brandon Bieber, Hannah Shankman, Matthew Patrick Davis, Don Richard, Kelvin Moon Loh, Charity Dawson, Javier Ignacio, Lauren Elder, Jordanna James, Josh Walker, Barrett Martin, David St. Louis, Derek Hanson, Con O’Shea-Creal, Matthew Hydzik . Scenic Design: David Rockwell . Costume Design: Paul Tazewell . Lighting Design: Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer . Sound Design: Kai Harada . Illusion Design: Paul Kieve . Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler . Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel . Produced by Max Woodward for The Kennedy Center in association with La Jolla Playhouse . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Riley Crogham . DCist
Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
Steve Hibbard . Connection
Michelle Alexandria . EclipseMagazine
Trey Graham . City Paper
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Alex Doll . BrightestYoungThings
Barbara Mackay . Theatermania
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Charles Isherwood . NY Times
David Fricic . DCMetroTheaterArts
Paul Harris . Variety
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Ed Kelty says
My father was the circus photographer who inspired the popular book “Water for Elephants.” He portrayed how “freaks” were treated by Ringling Brothers in the late twenties and early thirties as performers — instead of cast off people. They ate at the same tables as all the other performers and the owner John Ringling North — served by white-gloved waiters. Although other circuses may have exploited “freaks,” Ringling treated them as people.
Kaylyn Henderson says
I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed this article. However, you gave one of the actors the wrong last name. I’m friends with Jordanna James who plays the Cossack woman. You wrote Jones as her last name.