A couple of weeks back, I talked about my love and admiration for Sunset Boulevard. It was one of those musicals that really touched me in so many ways, both in how beautiful it was and how terrifying at the same time. Very few shows tend to give me that sort of reaction, and the few that do become among my favorites of all time. And this past Sunday, I might have discovered another title to add to that very important list, and its name is Side Show.
The show tells the true story of Violet and Daisy Hilton, sisters that were born conjoined twins. We meet them at a Freak Side Show, and are introduced to several of the other members of their group that live under the tent, controlled by the terrifying man known as Sir. Two young men, Terry Connor and Buddy Foster, discover the sisters at the Side Show and decide to bring them to New York on the Vauedville circuit. We then see the struggle for the sisters to gain freedom and acceptance, a ride riddled with high and low points throughout.
As mentioned, Side Show is more than just a musical, it’s an experience. Being a revival of a show that originally was unsuccessful during its first run, it’s amazing to see what changes were made to fix any of those prior issues. Granted, I never saw the 1997 production, but from the details and clips I’ve seen here and there, you can tell that though beautiful, it had many flaws. But with the 2014 incarnation, Side Show seems so fresh, that calling it a revival seems almost like a backhanded compliment.
Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) elevates the material, that to many was considered a mess, into a haunting theatrical experience, one that is hard to forget once you leave the theater. The large set pieces and dark color palette (designed by David Rockwell) obviously take their queues from the movie Freaks (which the Hilton sisters starred in), making the show a beautiful tribute to such an iconic piece of film history, while retaining the spark that made the original so fascinating.
Aiding the dramatic tension of the show is the beautiful score by Henry Krieger, along with the equally stunning lyrics by Bill Russell. The revival features 9 new songs, most of which are re-writes of tunes from the original production that didn’t quite fit the piece as a whole. Now with the new numbers (including a reworked version of “Tunnel of Love”, now titled “A Great Wedding Song”) the show flows much better and explains the journey of the Hilton sisters in greater detail.
But the element that many would consider the special ingredient in this production is the cast. Not one single member of this entire team misses a beat, and each one of them deserves high amounts of praise. From the ensemble (that flawlessly transforms from freaks to ordinary towns people) to our leads, each one of them plays a part that cannot be ignored. (Special shout outs to ensemble members Matthew Patrick Davis and Kelvin Moon Loh, who stole almost every scene they were in, and embodied their roles to perfection. The same goes for Ryan Silverman, who plays Terry.
PS: He would make the perfect Joe Gillis in a revival of Sunset Boulevard, just saying. )
On this specific performance, I had the pleasure of seeing Megan Mcginnis take over the role of Violet for Erin Davie, who did a phenomenal job. You could see the emotional course of the character running through her mind at every moment, and it was truly heartbreaking in the best of ways. Emily Padgett did a fantastic job as Daisy, being the more flirty and adventurous of the two. But as a whole, their joined performance was the stuff of emotional, “feels”-provoking legend. There was not a dry eye in the theater that day, which is the best compliment you could give to these two inspiring actresses.
In short, theater is supposed to take you on a journey, one that leaves you feeling a sensation entirely different than when you began to sit in your seat. Side Show does this effectively. It’s surprising, amazing, all the positive words I could muster, and I hope each and every one of these bits of praise makes you realize how much you need to see this revival. These are the kind of productions your mother tells you she saw in her youth, the kind that changed her as a person, which is what happened to me. And I really hope that can happen for whoever reads this, as we all deserve that kind of a theatrical experience.
Side Show currently plays at the St. James Theatre