The new, improved “Side Show” smells like a hit. Helmer Bill Condon’s shrewd reworking of this short-lived 1997 cult musical by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell (which comes to Gotham via La Jolla and the Kennedy Center) is both darker in tone and lighter in theme than memory has it. Leading ladies Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are perfection as Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins in real life who were plucked out of a carnival midway by a rascal showman and transformed into vaudeville stars. A lot of things that didn’t work in the original version still don’t work now, but no question about it, this show has the best freaks on Broadway.
The reworked book is all the better for keeping a tight focus on sassy Daisy (Padgett) and sweet Violet (Davie), country girls whose personal journey from obscurity to fame brings both happiness and heartbreak. It was also a smart creative decision to drop the original belligerent subtext (We’re-All-Freaks-Sucker-So-Don’t-Think-You’re-Normal), which allows the freaks to be freaks rather than metaphors.
The stunning opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” presents these social outcasts — among them a bearded lady, a hairy dog-boy and a lizard-man — in all their macabre glory as they slither out from the shadows created by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting design. Draping themselves all over David Rockwell’s murky carnival stage, they proudly exhibit their deformed bodies in the customized costumes (and nifty prostheses) designed by David and Lou Elsey. They must have been quite a sight during the bleak days of the 1930s Depression, reassuring the rubes that, no matter how badly off they were, they weren’t that badly off.
However alluring (or revolting) these unfortunates might appear to the customers who hand over their dimes and crowd into the sideshow tent, backstage they are one big family. Sir, the sleazy proprietor played in grand showman style by Robert Joy, isn’t the kindest boss to work for, but as a father figure, he represents the only stability that Daisy and Violet have ever known. Jake, the make-believe cannibal who is secretly in love with Violet, is a far better protector, especially in David St. Louis’ powerful performance.
But no one can protect the girls from Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman), a hustler who recognizes their potential value as vaudeville performers (“Very Well Connected”), and Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), the sidekick who takes on the job of training them in the ways of show biz, winning hearts as “Typical Girls Next Door.” As we already know from their poignant desire to be “Like Everyone Else,” Daisy and Violet are ready to leave their family, and when they finally go (“Say Goodbye to the Sideshow”), the sense of loss is keen.
Costumer Paul Tazewell comes into his own when Daisy and Violet find fame and fortune on the vaudeville circuit. Stripping the girls of their innocent pink dresses, he drapes them in some really stunning numbers, from flirty red dresses and elegant suits to beaded white wedding gowns that look stunning on Padgett and Davie — who finally get some frocks as lovely as their glorious soprano voices.
But aside from the pretty clothes (and blonde hair) the twins get to wear, life on the vaudeville circuit can’t compare with the loving home they left in the first act. The twins’ individual characters are complex and, as played here, quite moving. The sentiments of “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” have thought and depth, and unlike the love songs, are not bellowed at the high decibel of football cheers.
But no one else is written with any depth whatsoever. Terry’s character is shockingly shallow and Buddy’s only slightly less so, salvaged by a modest note of sexual ambiguity. And while the clarity of the vocal arrangements enhance the lovely musicality of Krieger’s lyrical compositions, that lucidity also exposes the clunkiness of the lyrics, which land on defenseless ears like blunt instruments.