I’m seeing double.
It’s been 17 years since I heard then-unknown belters Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, along with the Side Show’s original company, sing “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” at Broadway on Broadway, a free outdoor concert presented by the Times Square Alliance. It was electrifying.
The real-life story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton opened last night in a newly conceived production directed by Hollywood heavyweight Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey, God and Monsters). The show features music by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls, The Tap Dance Kid) and book and lyrics by Bill Russell (Pageant). Much of the original production has been tinkered with, but the gist of the story remains the same as it follows the girls as they escape from the side show circuit to become one of vaudeville’s most coveted acts.
As leading ladies, Emily Padgett (Daisy) and Erin Davie (Violet) are tasked with a seemingly insurmountable task of conveying the pair attached at the hip, delivering a nuanced and delicate performance that often transcends the material. Daisy wants the bright lights and stardom that Hollywood has to offer, while Violet wishes to fall in love and lead a normal life. Unfortunately, neither is going anywhere without the other. Padgett is punchy and manages to find humor in the role, while Davie is saddled with more gravitas and occasionally wallows in sniffles and tears.
The twins are lured with promises of stardom and a better life. Ryan Silverman as their manager Terry, and Matthew Hydzik as Bobby, the twin’s song and dance man with a wandering eye, offer a charming onstage presence and it’s easy to imagine how the girls might fall in love with them. Along for the ride is David St. Louis as Jake, a side show sidekick who is hired to oversee the twins’ well-being.
In its original production, Side Show lasted merely 91 performances, saddled by a clunky book and a few sequences that have become cult favorites (who remembers “The Tunnel of Love”?) Much of this has been cleaned up with the help of Condon, who is credited with additional book material, as well as new music and lyrics. Even so, the musical’s structure lacks cohesion, primarily due to a score that isn’t firmly grounded in time or place.
Side Show has two epic ballads: “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You,” which close each act. In between there’s a rebel rousing “The Devil You Know,” which sounds like it could be lifted from the Dreamgirls cutting room floor, vaudeville-inspired song and dance sequences, and an exhaustingly overwrought 10 o’clock number (to be followed by the aforementioned 11 o’clock one) delivered by Jake as he confesses his longstanding love for Violet.
Woven throughout, the hard-working ensemble of “freaks” (their word, not mine) comprise Daisy and Violet’s carnie sidekicks as creatively conceived by Paul Tazewell (costumes), Dave and Lou Elsey (special make-up effects), Charles LaPointe (wig and hair design), and Cookie Jordan (make-up design)—they all deserve mention because it is a cumulative and invigorating display of craftsmanship, unlike David Rockwell’s set, which falls flat on creativity.
Under Condon’s direction, this incarnation of Side Show has moments of emotional resonance, but his lack of stage experience is evident in clunky stage patterns and change-of-scene sequences, which could use a defter hand. The real Hilton sisters achieved stardom that many of the era could only dream of, eventually touring with Bob Hope and meeting the likes of Harry Houdini, who according to the program notes, taught them how to self-hypnotize to “get rid” of one another. I’m not sure this tribute to their lives will have quite the same impact, but for an entertaining evening at the theater that is a far cry from the usual display of long-legged chorus girls, Side Show should be front and center.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Interested in the real Hilton sisters? Take a look at this fascinating documentary…