Daisy and Violet Hilton, the “Siamese twins” of Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s Side Show, are back onstage in a heartstoppingly beautiful revival of the 1997 multiple-Tony Award nominee at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse, a production which despite a couple too many deleted songs, makes for one powerful “revisal” as re-imagined by its creators and director Bill Condon.

10749054184_d3f31a895a_o Russell’s book (with “additional book material” by Condon) now delves deeper into the biographical facts behind the Hilton Twins’ vaudeville stardom and their subsequent film debut in Tod Browning’s 1933 cult hit Freaks.

Adopted by their unmarried mum’s boss “Auntie Lou” and her husband “Sir,” the conjoined twins (joined at their hips and buttocks) grew up as circus Side Show attractions alongside Bearded Lady, Dog Boy, Reptile Man and other assorted “freaks,” their adoptive parents’ physical abuse keeping the twosome from ever thinking of escape.

Virtual prisoners of the Side Show, Daisy and Violet might have remained behind invisible bars for the rest of their lives had aspiring entertainer Buddy Foster not caught their act and persuaded talent scout Terry Connor that the comely teenagers had a future ahead of them in vaudeville on the Orpheum Circuit. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In addition to recounting the Hilton twins’ professional lives, Side Show also delves into their private loves, with homebody Violet falling for Terry and fame-seeker Daisy developing her own romantic feelings for Buddy, while one-time “Cannibal King” Jake harbors unrequited love for the quieter, gentler of the twins.

10749017636_ed67ae7cf5_o Composer Krieger may be best known for Dreamgirls, but his Side Show melodies may be even more gorgeous than those penned for The Dreams, a number of them having gone on to become, if not standards, then certainly favorites of musical theater buffs. They don’t get any more beautiful, or powerful, than “Like Everyone Else,” “Feelings You’ve Got To Hide,” “You Should Be Loved,” and the show’s two biggest hits, “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You,” all of the above featuring Russell’s powerful, poetic lyrics.

Most of the revisions made by Russell, Krieger, and Condon make Side Show 2013 a stronger show than the one Los Angeles audiences got to see at the Colony Theatre in 2000. Terry and Buddy get a cleverly titled introductory song in “Very Well Connected.” The girls’ performing talents are revealed in a brand-new “Typical Girls Next Door.” Harry Houdini (an added character this time round) gets a gorgeous “All In The Mind” and Sir’s “Crazy, Deaf, And Blind” is replaced by “Come See A New Land.” Act Two now opens with “Stuck On You,” brighter and bubblier than the original’s “Rare Songbirds On Display.” And Side Show now has its very own title song (performed by Daisy and Violet) that adds another layer to the show’s—and the song’s—title. As for “I Will Never Leave You,” though the song remains the same, director Condon adds an inspired visual that will take your breath away.

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Shortchanged in Sideshow 2.0 are Buddy and Terry and their relationships with Violet and Daisy. Without “More Than We Bargained For,” we don’t get Buddy’s discomfort with Violet’s affections and an understanding of why he feels at last at home amongst “freaks.” A more grievous omission is “Tunnel Of Love,” not only an Act Two showstopper, but one whose consequences inform Daisy’s eleventh-hour change of heart, one which now seems more forced on her than of her own volition. (Hopefully, the creative team will see fit to restore these two numbers before Side Show, produced in association with the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts, plays Washington DC in June.)

Still and all, Side Show is one humdinger of a musical, and overall stronger than the one Broadway and L.A. audiences saw a decade and a half ago, particularly as directed by Academy Award winner Condon (of Dreamgirls fame) and starring Erin Davie as Violet and Emily Padget as Daisy.

10749019936_908b814431_o The original Broadway production scored Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner a shared Tony nomination for these roles, and not only do Davie and Padget give their own Tony-caliber performances (which include a good deal more dancing than the Broadway originals), the Broadway vets’ freshness and youth make us believe in the teenagers we first meet, and their transformation into glamorous adults is therefore all the more stunning. Not only do Davey amd Padget bringing bona fide triple-threat gifts to the Hiltons, never for a moment do they have us confusing Daisy for Violet, or vice versa.

Dynamic leading men Manoel Felciano and Matthew Hydzig are both excellent, though perhaps a bit too physically similar given that song cuts now make it harder to see just how different Terry and Buddy are.

10749013616_6f2c5d112d_o Supporting roles, on the other hand, are as clearly delineated as crystal. David St. Louis’s towering, heart-wrenching work as Jake and Robert Joy’s sleazy yet painfully human Sir are both standouts, as are each and every one of the freaks, performed by consummate triple threats whose ensemble tracks allow the Side Show “attractions” to double as reporters, party guests, doctors, film makers, and assorted cameos.

10749051354_538ca690aa_o They don’t get any more talented than 3-Legged Man Brandon Bieber, Geek Matthew Patrick Davis, Venus di Milo Lauren Elder, Dog Boy Javier Ignacio, Half Man Half Woman Kelvin Moon Loh, Hottentot Zonya Love, Roustabouts Barrett Martin and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Reptile Man Don Richard, Bearded Lady Blair Ross, Fortune Teller Keala Settle, or Tattoo Girl Hannah Shankman, with Ignacio and Ross each getting their solo vocal showcases, he as Houdini and she as Auntie. The always topnotch David Kirk Grant and swing Michelle London complete the cast.

Anthony Van Laast’s lively choreography gets showcased in Side Show’s numerous vaudeville numbers and in the extraordinary “A Private Conversation,” with special snaps to both choreographer and Hilton twins for making us believe the twosome are dancing as a single unit.

10749249273_9467c649ff_o Scenic designer David Rockwell and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer bring the carnival sideshow to dramatic life on the Mandell Weiss Theatre stage, as do Paul Tazewell’s supremely imaginative costumes, Charles G. LaPointe’s impeccable period hair and wigs, and Cookie Jordan’s expert makeup, with Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey deserving an extra round of applause for their “special makeup effects design,” particularly the masks which allow Davis, Ignacio, and Richard to get in and out of “freak” mode and into more “normal” looks in no time. Tazewell too deserves special mention for Hilton Twin garb that makes us believe the two are attached, and for one remarkable onstage costume change that takes place in the blink of an eye. (On the other hand, I had no inkling that  Side Show Venus was supposed to appear armless.) Kai Harada’s crackerjack sound design completes the outstanding, Broadway-ready design package.

Musical director Greg Jarrett conducts and plays keyboards in the Side Show’s superb ten-piece pit orchestra, with snaps going out to Sam Davis for his music supervision and new vocal/dance arrangements, David Chase for his original arrangements, and Harold Wheeler for his orchestrations.

Receiving deserved program credit are Dave Solomon (associate director), Janet Rothermel (associate choreographer), Ursula Meyer (accent consultant), Shirley Fishman (dramaturg), Laura Stanczyk, CSA (casting), Linda Marvel (production stage manager), CJ LaRoche (stage manager), Jess Slocum (assistant stage manager), Dana I. Harrel (producing director), and Linda S. Cooper (production manager).

Despite its Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Book Of A Musical, and Best Original Score, the original Side Show lasted a mere 91 performances on Broadway. Though no plans have been announced for a San Diego/Washington DC-to-Broadway transfer, I wouldn’t rule a New York run out of the question. As re-imagined by its original creators and Condon, Side Show may well be a Broadway Show whose time has come.

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.

–Steven Stanley
November 19, 2013
Photos: Kevin Berne

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