Bill Condon has reworked “Side Show,” the 1997 tuner succes d’estime — translation, floppo with cult status — into a handsome production that will follow its bow at the La Jolla Playhouse with a Kennedy Center run in the summer. Redux firms up the backstory of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and provides a fitting showcase for one of the 1990s’ greatly underappreciated scores. If the spectacle doesn’t quite take flight, for reasons old and new, unquestionably it dazzles.
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are a beautifully matched pair as, respectively, the twin who craves fame and the one who covets security. Their voices blend to act, not just “sell,” Henry Krieger’s soaring ballads “I Will Never Leave You” and “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” and genuine emotional chords are struck with the showbiz hustlers (Manoel Felciano and Matthew Hydzik, both solid) who bring them out of their shell.
Showbiz’s thrills and excesses are paramount here — no surprise from Condon, the helmer of the “Dreamgirls” pic who here persuades Krieger and librettist/lyricist Bill Russell to insert additional fancy set pieces for the famous vaudeville duo. (If the real Hiltons had had the benefit of Anthony van Laast’s clever choreography, their stardom might have lasted.)
Highly effective special makeup from Hollywood vets Dave and Lou Elsey literalizes the “freaks and geeks” from whose midst the Hiltons yearn to be liberated, and David Rockwell’s supple, sleazy arrangements of rickety wooden levels offer prime real estate to be liberated from.
Still, there’s a thematic emptiness at the heart of “Side Show.” Daisy and Violet are portrayed as worthwhile individuals no different from anyone, a reasonable position laid out as soberly as testimony at an Americans With Disabilities Act Congressional hearing.
In the theater, however, a theme needs to be dramatized. Where’s the threat to the girls’ selfhood? Given Condon’s contortionist’s efforts to stay respectful, their allegedly awful past is reduced to limp Dickensian flashbacks. The present-day bigotry they encounter barely skims the surface, and in neither timeframe can actor Robert Joy do anything with his wicked carny boss role, an impossibly-written Fagin retread.
Everyone else treats the Hiltons with kid gloves, notably hanger-on Jake, beautifully sung by David St. Louis but no more of a substantive figure than in 1997. The girls never quarrel much, not even over the lack of privacy that must be the worst thing about being conjoined. (Harry Houdini drops by to teach them how to go to a private psychic place not unlike Hannibal Lecter’s “memory palace,” but the trick is never brought into the narrative.)
It’s hard not to think of David Lynch’s similarly-themed film of “The Elephant Man,” which rubbed our noses in John Merrick’s degradation so as to build up his ultimate transcendence. “Side Show” remains discreet and obsequious throughout, with more menace in Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s strange, moody midway lighting than any of the character interactions or plot twists. Toward the end the prospect of separating the Hiltons is raised as a turning point but just dribbles away, though it could be toughened up for D.C.
In a way, time has tamed “Side Show,” by virtue of post-1997 cable TV’s 24/7 inside stories of so-called medical curiosities coping with everyday existence. Before our eyes, conjoined twins marry and procreate, clash and make up. The minutely short and unusually tall engage in productive, interesting careers.
“Who will love me as I am?” the Hiltons wail. That these reality-show folks have discovered the answer tends to reduce the girls’ misfortunes to mere bad luck in choosing men, and the musical’s impact to that of a wispy metaphor. For all their leering prurience, cable side shows are messy and real in a way “Side Show,” in both 1.0 and 2.0 incarnations, pointedly sidles away from becoming.