Remembered for its unconventional theme, its inviting score, its polarizing effect on audiences and its brief, 91-perf run on Broadway in 1997, the cult-favorite flop “Side Show” now emerges as a thoroughly engaging musical — chock full of satisfying moments and, just as importantly, stripped of the elements that have limited the appeal of this offbeat saga about vaudeville’s conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Credit the dogged determination and creativity of the team that has extensively revised the original — author/lyricist Bill Russell, composer Henry Krieger and screenwriter/director Bill Condon — in a staging that had its initial run at the La Jolla Playhouse last year and now, with further tinkering done in the interim, has opened at the Kennedy Center in D.C.
With Condon and the original creative duo making wholesale revisions, the team has realigned the book from an abstract work to a more vivid biographical piece based on the true story of the Hilton twins, adding 10 new numbers and cutting others. The revised storyline might register as more compelling than convincing, but it breezes along nicely under Condon’s sturdy hand and is adorned with polish in every department.
Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, playing Violet and Daisy, lead a first-rate cast. With their inspiring soprano voices, comedic timing and obvious compatibilities (they even look like twins), the two are thoroughly convincing as sensitive gals who just want to be like everyone else.
Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik are equally effective as the twins’ romantic interests Terry and Buddy, two roles that have been strengthened by the revise, while David St. Louis contributes his earthy baritone to the role of the compassionate and love-struck assistant.
Makeup effects wizards Dave and Lou Elsey have concocted an eerie assemblage of side show freaks, all lavishly dressed by costume designer Paul Tazewell. David Rockwell’s versatile sets provide multi-level spaces for fluid movement, while Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting creates all the right moods.
But the new “Side Show’s” real selling point is its thoroughly delightful score, enhanced with terrific new songs. Act II now opens with a catchy comedy number, “Stuck With You,” that features the twins and their dance partners glamorously attired in high ’20s fashion. Choreographer Anthony van Laast, inventive throughout, makes the most of the occasion — no easy task when one duo is joined at the hip.
Other tuneful additions include a newly-added act two chorus number, “Coming Apart at the Seams,” and a tender act one duet by the twins called “Feelings You’ve Got to Hide.” Gone, meanwhile, is the old “Tunnel of Love” number, which repelled some auds with its graphic foreplay. The pivotal love interest angles are now handled more discretely.
Wearing their Broadway aspirations on their sleeves, the show’s collaborators obviously hope the D.C. engagement of this LaJolla-KenCen co-production will point the way. Given the musical’s dramatic improvements and the generally expanding audiences for tuners with unconventional themes, Broadway interest seems a sure bet.