Washington — To hear it described, or perhaps even to watch it, the thing can seem uncomfortably like a “Family Guy” fantasy-cutaway parody of a Broadway musical. Consider, especially, its finale: two women, quite literally joined at the hip, belting a tender, plaintive anthem titled “I Will Never Leave You.” There is the pathos, the self-seriousness, the un-self-aware (or perhaps overly self-aware) textual literalism, and, yes, the two gorgeous soprano voices — all those attributes that modern American mass culture associates, somewhat derisively, with the Broadway musical. Looked at in one way, it can be difficult to stifle a giggle.
Ah, but those two women, the Hilton sisters — Violet and Daisy, conjoined, if you please — are used to being laughed at. And that same finale, silly as it can seem, is also a beautiful and powerful moment, a gorgeously tuneful celebration of self-acceptance, with a deathless melody that will remain inexorably stuck in your head for days after leaving the theater. And so it goes more broadly for “Side Show,” the beloved odd duck of a musical that recently opened in a sometimes ravishing and sometimes frustrating revival in the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on the banks of the Potomac. It is simultaneously wonderful and ridiculous. Any production of this musical — and this is a very good production of this musical — must be thus.
“Side Show,” with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, who also composed “Dreamgirls,” opened on Broadway in late 1997 and ran for only three months. It’s not hard to see why. It’s the largely true story of the Hilton girls, born in England in 1908, displayed in pubs and made to perform in sideshows by their unscrupulous and exploitative guardians, who eventually brought them to the United States. Once they successfully sued for emancipation, they moved to the vaudeville circuit, where they achieved some renown and had several affairs and short marriages, before finally dying, several days apart and largely forgotten, in 1969. As rendered in “Side Show,” which leaves the girls in career triumph, and romantic devastation, near the end of their vaudeville heyday, it is a sad, fascinating tale, one that hits many of the traditional themes of the Broadway musical: the loneliness of the outsider, the struggle for connection, the importance of self-acceptance. But it is not necessarily one audiences want to see sung and danced about.
The new production at the Kennedy Center, the show’s first major revival and potentially a pre-Broadway tryout — in recent years, new versions of “Ragtime” and “Follies” have originated here and moved to New York — is directed by Bill Condon, who wrote and directed the movie version of Krieger’s “Dreamgirls.” Here, he reworked the book, adding, removing and reorganizing some songs, and wrote new some new material. (Russell and Krieger wrote the new tunes.) I didn’t see the original production, but the consensus is that Condon’s changes help the show, clarifying plotlines and providing clearer motivations and backstories for the sisters and their retinue and antagonists.
But just as significantly, Condon has conceived a darkly lush staging, with sets (by David Rockwell), costumes (by Paul Tazewell), makeup (by Dave and Lou Elsey and Cookie Jordan) and wigs and hair (by Charles G. LaPointe) that evoke the garish, lurid world of Depression-era freak shows. It is a visually striking production that opens memorably, with a cavalcade of shocking human attractions — a three-legged man (Brandon Bieber, prosthesis attached), a half man-half woman (Kelvin Moon Loh, attired with hermaphroditic precision), a reptile man (Don Richard, with icky, scaly skin), and so on — revealing themselves on a ramshackle stage to the haunting sounds of Russell and Krieger’s “Meet the Freaks.”
He has also cast two extraordinary actresses in the lead roles. Erin Davie (whom you’ve seen on Broadway in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Grey Gardens”) is Violet Hilton, who just wants to be a typical girl next door. Emily Padgett (of “Rock of Ages,” “Legally Blonde,” and “Grease”) is Daisy Hilton, who wants the same thing, except to be richer and more famous than most. The woman both sound, and look, terrific, but they also manage to convey the sisters’ differences in personality and ambitions even as they remain so identical. Their interplay is consistently fascinating — the way they often grab at each others’ arms and share sympathetic looks, the way they frustrate and irritate each other, the way their bond is, to some extent, a pressure-cooked microcosm of the interdependence and antagonism, attachment and resentment, in any intimate relationship.
They’re supported by an equally fine cast, most notably a terrifically eerie Robert Joy as Sir, the sisters’ guardian and exploiter, and David St. Louis as Jake, the erstwhile King of the Cannibals, who accompanies Violet and Daisy as their friend, protector and assistant when they move from the side show to vaudeville. His searing ballad “You Should Be Loved,” a declaration of his unrequited and, because of his status as a black man in the 1930s, unrequitable love for Violet, is the show’s most resonant song not sung by the sisters. Ryan Silverman, as the would-be impresario Terry Connor, who orchestrates the sisters’ escape and success, and suggests to Daisy that he’d love her if only she’d undergo a potentially deadly separation surgery, and Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster, Terry’s song-and-dance teacher, who sort of falls for Violet but also sort of doesn’t, are also excellent.
Buddy’s character arc is one of the changes from the original production to this new one. He still spontaneously asks Violet to marry him; he still somewhat spontaneously decides against it, realizing he’s not brave enough to do it. But now there’s a clear implication that he’s actually gay, which both succeeds in giving his violent engagement indecision a bit more texture and also makes the musical’s almost slapsticky final scene — the wedding’s off! Hollywood is calling! Hollywood only wants you if you’re married! Then I’ll marry the other guy instead! — no more credible.
That remains the problem of “Side Show”: that for all its emotional and musical richness, its occasional awkwardness — in plotting, in some lyrics, in groaner song titles like “Very Well Connected” (about showbiz!), “Stuck With You,” and “Coming Apart at the Seams” — prevent the piece from achieving the liftoff velocity necessary to overcome the conceit’s central ridiculousness.
But here and there it does, most often in Condon’s expertly staged musical numbers. The two most famous songs of “Side Show” close out its two acts, each a remarkable duet for these two remarkable sisters. As sung by Davie and Padgett, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” at the end of Act One, and “I Will Never Leave You,” the finale, are two of the most moving moments in theater I’ve seen. They’re worth the price of admission. Step right up.
Jesse Oxfeld, until recently publisher of Tablet Magazine, has written about theater for the New York Observer and New York magazine.