“Come look at the freaks.” Thus, enticingly, begins the musical Side Show, currently being revived at the St. James theatre with a reworked book and direction by filmmaker Bill Condon, known for his screenplay for Chicago and his direction of the slick movie version of Dreamgirls in 2006 (among other film projects). It’s a beckoning, sung but almost whispered by a chorus of side show performers, “aberrations” as the show describes them, and the show begins as any real-life side show would — by showing off its prized attractions: the chicken-eating geek, the bearded lady, the cannibal king, the lizard man, and last but not least the Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins with a talent for singing (the show’s costumes by Paul Tazewell, make-up effects by Dave and Lou Elsey, wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe, and make-up design by Cookie Jordan all deserve special mentions).
It’s clear from its opening moments that Side Show is no conventional musical. Originally produced on Broadway in 1997, its dark premise (based on the real-life story of the Hilton twins) and desire to strike at something deeper than surface-level entertainment set it apart from a vast quantity of musicals and have made it a cult favorite over the years, thanks in part to its original stars, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. But its ambitions aren’t quite matched by its material, particularly its pop-inflected score by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger (writers of Dreamgirls), which works against the musical’s unconventional premise rather than bolstering it.
The show begins at the side show, where the Hilton twins, Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (regularly played by Erin Davie, played by Megan McGinnis at the performance I attended), are languishing under the court-mandated care of creepy carnival-master Sir (Robert Joy). They’re soon rescued by a pair of handsome smooth-talkers, talent scout Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) and dancer-choreographer Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), and set forth as big stars on the vaudeville circuit. A flashback sequence in the first act reveals the sisters’ tumultuous upbringing at the hands of an adoptive “auntie” who plied the sisters’ deformity for her own benefit (much of this back story is also covered in the fine documentary Bound by Flesh).
The overlong exposition of the show’s first act, which labors over fleshing out the concrete details of the twins’ lives without digging very far below the surface, gives way to more accomplished storytelling in Act Two. The show turns a corner after its intermission, delving deeper into the realities of the twins’ circumstances — and the longing they both experience, Daisy for Terry and Violet for Buddy (who prefers the company of men). The stakes are raised when Violet and Buddy announce their engagement and Terry proposes to Daisy that she and her sister consider risky surgery to separate them.
Silverman’s thrilling performance of “Private Conversation,” a fantasy sequence in which the twins separate, is a highlight of the production, which is ably performed by a large and talented cast. Here, distilled, is the essence of the twins’ impossible search for love. “I need, I need,” Terry sings, “I need to tell you I want you for my own.” But he can never have Daisy alone; she’s inextricably bound to her sister and, though they want nothing more than to be “like everyone else,” as an early song explains, it’s their difference that defines them for better or worse.
Still, by this point in the show, the depth on display is too little too late. Had the creative rigor of this moment — in which Condon’s direction, Krieger and Russell’s writing, and Erin Padgett and Ryan Silverman’s performances all come together in harmony — been seeded throughout the rest of Side Show, the sum of the show’s parts could have been so much greater. As it is, the show, and especially its score, focuses too often on easily digestible emotional moments (song titles like “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” give you an idea) and not enough on the murky, difficult stuff that’s plum for mining in the story of the Hiltons, who, in real life vanished into obscurity after starring in the film Freaks and died at age 60, Daisy several days before Violet, in 1969. With the sisters left on their own at the end of Side Show, the portentous future ahead of them is only alluded to. “Come look at the freaks” returns as a refrain, sung again by the freaks from the side show that’s a mere memory for the Hiltons now. The show’s authors are telling us that, though the sisters have left the side show, they’ll always be freaks. But this easy, lazy conclusion tells us what we could have intimated from the show’s premise. What deeper, more elucidating truths lie within the story of the Hiltons’ rise and fall will remain, I suppose, until abler voices pick up the story again and take a new, fresh look at it.