Side Show comes with everything you’d want in a Broadway-caliber musical: a soaring score with its share of big-moment ballads, a sumptuous set, inspired costumes and makeup, and a trusty cast of experienced pro’s. So why is Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s 1997 Broadway musical at La Jolla Playhouse so unsettling, not from anything you see but from what you feel? You get this uneasy quivering in your stomach from the very beginning, when you meet the inhabitants of a carnival freak show, and it doesn’t go away, long after the action has shifted from the circus tent to the vaudeville stage. The carnival has been left behind, true enough, but the freak show continues: Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton are swept away and lured toward a better life by talent scout Terry Connor and crony Buddy Foster, but they are still being gawked at, asked tactless questions, and exploited. The Hilton sisters’ plight seems unbearably sad in spite of their pluck and throwaway lines about their deformity. When the prospect of love, and marriage, enters the picture, you know there’s no throwaway line to save them.
Side Show is a co-production of the Playhouse and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which will host performances back East next spring. Bill Condon, who collaborated with Krieger on the film version of Dreamgirls, directs this “reimagining” of Side Show, which opened on Broadway 16 years ago and ran for only three months. This new cast is led by Emily Padgett and Erin Davie as Daisy and Violet, respectively, with Manoel Feliciano as Terry, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy and David St. Louis doing the best of the vocal belting out as the sisters’ protector, Jake.
The Hiltons’ physical conjoining is not disturbing – they appear to be no more than standing very close to each other. But it’s what you don’t see – what’s on the inside – that gnaws at you. When Terry fantasizes in Act 2’s “A Private Conversation” about loving and dancing with a “separated” Daisy, the effect is haunting. Side Show doesn’t always deliver that degree of poignancy, but it does not rely, even in the first-act freak show scenes, on shock value.
Still, you’ll want to take a deep breath when it’s over.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.