Boy meets girl squared in "Side Show," a surprisingly conventional showbiz musical with only one twist: The song-and-dance partners can't break up the act.

Boy meets girl squared in “Side Show,” a surprisingly conventional showbiz musical with only one twist: The song-and-dance partners can’t break up the act.

Double on everything but plot, “Side Show” is a behind-the-curtain peek at the Hilton Sisters, “Siamese” twins who became vaudeville stars and media sensations of the 1920s and ’30s. Two terrific lead actresses, two turbulent love stories, two heartbreaks and one pleasant, very mainstream score add up to a story that ultimately falls too short of its potential.

With actresses Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley standing, sitting and occasionally dancing side by side virtually throughout the show’s two hours and 40 minutes, “Side Show” simply and effectively overcomes the obvious theatrical challenge of depicting what is politely referred to by other characters as the twins’ “condition.”

Despite a respectful, compassionate tone, the creative team (book writer and lyricist Bill Russell, composer Henry Krieger and director Robert Longbottom) lighten the saga with occasionally irreverent humor (one of the score’s sisterly duets is titled “Leave Me Alone”).

Beginning with the requisite step-right-up opening number that quickly introduces the members of a carnival freak show (a reptile man, bearded lady, chicken-biting geek, etc.), “Side Show” charts the rise to stardom of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins and primary attraction of the second-rate circus.

Pretty, charming and with at least a modicum of singing talent, the sisters are discovered by a fledgling songwriter (Hugh Panaro) and a vaudeville scout (Jeff McCarthy). Over the objections of the cruel carnival boss (Ken Jennings) and the protective, loving family of freaks, the sisters leave the relatively safe confines of the midway for a shot at showbiz stardom.

And they find it, soon becoming popular attractions of the vaudeville circuit and stars of a Ziegfeld-like follies show. The starry-eyed, ambitious Daisy (Skinner) particularly enjoys the attention, while the more serious Violet (Ripley) yearns for love and domestic stability.

In a development that could be a parody of the everyone-finds-love conventions of romantic comedy, Daisy falls for the talent scout while Violet pairs up with the handsome songwriter (who, after proposing marriage to Violet, asks the scout in gee-whiz style, “Say, why don’t you marry Daisy?”).

Ultimately, only one sister will marry (in a wedding staged, as in real life, for publicity purposes), and neither will find true love and happiness. “Side Show” leaves the Hiltons wiser, sadder and more unified than ever, their soaring ballad “I Will Never Leave You” ending the tuner as the sisters prepare to go Hollywood with a starring role in Tod Browning’s “Freaks.”

The sisters’ bumpy ride to infamy and disillusion would seem to offer plenty of plot options, yet surprisingly little actually happens in “Side Show,” with the long first act accomplishing little more than setting up the romantic quadrangle and the second act bogged down by overwrought solos.

Most disappointing, the intriguing milieu of the freak show is an opportunity lost, the authors having taken the easy, politically correct route by presenting the safest, most tolerant bunch of carnies imaginable (exotic acts are emphasized over physical deformity, and the misfits’ open-minded solidarity extends to the obvious, if unspoken, gay pairing of a muscleman and a fakir).

Aside from the twins, the only “freak” given prominence in “Side Show” is Jake (well played by Norm Lewis), billed as a captured cannibal king but actually the intelligent, sensitive protector of the sisters.

Jake’s love for Violet might draw unflattering comparisons to a nearly identical situation depicted in last season’s darker Off Broadway musical “Violet” (no relation to the Hilton sister). But in “Violet,” the difficult issues surrounding a black man’s love for an outcast (and physically marred) white woman were tackled in an edgy, more brooding (and arguably more successful) approach: “Side Show,” by comparison, is surprisingly convention-bound, its tone more “Gypsy” than “Elephant Man.”

However effectively crafted and enthusiastically performed, the score often comes across as too calculated in its crowd pleasing, touching all bases from the de rigueur gospel ensemble number (“The Devil You Know”) to ballads that could be inserted into any romantic musical (“Why do I feel like I swallowed a butterfly?” one love-struck twin sings in “Feelings You’ve Got to Hide”).

That said, “Side Show” does beat the odds in at least a few ways. Robin Wagner’s unelaborate carnival sets and Gregg Barnes’ attractive costumes set the right mood, and if the musical doesn’t take full advantage of history, neither does it devolve into camp (if ever a musical was ripe for “Forbidden Broadway” satire, this is it).

The sudden arrival of Hollywood director Browning at the musical’s end is probably as necessary as it is silly, and there’s only one out-and-out groaner of a song (the unintentionally kitschy, and unfortunately pivotal, “Tunnel of Love,” in which the romantic foursome reveals inner thoughts and passions during a carnival ride).

And the story’s most obvious challenge — how to depict the twins themselves — seems to have been the most easily surmounted. Director-choreographer Longbottom’s side-by-side approach, though inherently a bit static, generally works fine, with the wonderfully talented Ripley and Skinner moving in perfect sync while etching distinctly individual personalities.

The musical, however, would be better served if it gave Ripley and Skinner something (or someone) to play against. Panaro, as the hunky songwriter whose intentions are stronger than his character, and McCarthy, as the talent scout whose love can’t overcome his misgivings, do as well as can be expected in roles marked by the same ambivalence of purpose that keeps “Side Show” from hitting the big time.

As the sisters head off to Hollywood, they inspire the same pity they drew in the freak show, making this journey little more than a sad, nicely sung curiosity.

Side Show

Richard Rodgers Theater, New York; 1,344 seats; $75 top

Production

An Emanuel Azenberg, Joseph Nederlander, Herschel Waxman, Janice McKenna and Scott Nederlander presentation of a musical in two acts, book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom.

Creative

Musical direction, vocal and dance arrangements, David Chase; sets, Robin Wagner; costumes, Gregg Barnes; Lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Tom Clark; orchestrations, Harold Wheeler; musical coordination, Seymour Red Press; associate choreographer, Tom Kosis; associate producer, Ginger Montel; production stage manager, Perry Cline. Opened Oct. 16, 1997; reviewed Oct. 13. Running time: 2 hrs., 40 min.
Musical numbers: "Come Look at the Freaks," "Like Everyone Else," "You Deserve a Better Life," "Crazy, Deaf and Blind," "The Devil You Know," "More Than We Bargained For," "Feelings You've Got to Hide," "When I'm by Your Side," "Say Goodbye to the Freak Show," "Overnight Sensation," "Leave Me Alone," "We Share Everything," "The Interview," "Who Will Love Me as I Am?," "Rare Songbirds on Display," "New Year's Day," "Private Conversation," "One Plus One Equals Three," "You Should Be Loved," "Tunnel of Love," "Beautiful Day for a Wedding," "Marry Me, Terry," "I Will Never Leave You."

Cast

Cast: Ken Jennings (The Boss), Norm Lewis (Jake), Jeff McCarthy (Terry Connor), Hugh Panaro (Buddy Foster), Alice Ripley (Violet Hilton), Emily Skinner (Daisy Hilton); Barry Finkel, Andy Gale, Billy Hartung, Emily Hsu, Alicia Irving, Devanand N. Janki, Judy Mallow, David Masenheimer, David McDonald, Phillip Officer, Verna Pierce, Jim T. Ruttman, Jenny-Lynn Suckling, Susan Taylor, Timothy Warmen, Darlene Wilson.
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