This sensitive production of the Tony Award-nominated musical is beguiling despite its flaws
A cult musical about cult figures, Side Show is the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton – conjoined twins born in 1908 who performed in Depression-era side shows (they were even on display in Australia in 1913), vaudeville acts, and in the controversial 1932 Tod Browning film Freaks (which in turn inspired Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story: Freak Show). It explores their lives, fame, and seeming liberation; their love for each other and their quest to be loved; and, ultimately, their search for individual identity.
It’s also a musical with a complicated past, trying to tell a difficult story with sensitivity, drama, and high-stakes emotion.
With a book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls), Side Show premiered on Broadway in 1997, quickly becoming a niche favourite for its dark content and legendary for its powerhouse dual leads, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner – the first actors to be co-nominated as one for a Tony Award. But it received mixed reviews and ran for a short 91 performances.
Reworked and revisited at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2013, and then at DC’s Kennedy Center, it re-opened on Broadway in 2014 with a darker narrative bent, more songs and the addition of the Hilton sisters’ difficult childhood. The revival still closed within seven weeks – a show about disability exploitation is a tough sell for the tourist-driven Broadway scene – but was warmly received by critics.
The show is a good fit for the Hayes, which can take risks in a small space, and is teaching its audience to expect shows from across the musical theatre spectrum.
Directed here by Richard Carroll, this show about exploitation is careful not to exploit. His ensemble of performers – who open the show in the disconcerting number ‘Come Look at the Freaks’ – move with singular individuality. Their look is stronger than their collective acting chops, but they are never rendered as ‘grotesque’.
The exception to this is Jake (Timothy Springs), a New Jersey native styled as an ‘exotic’ Cannibal King in the side show. In reality he is a sensitive protector of the twins, and in love with Violet. Jake is the least developed of the supporting characters, more of a tragic representation of bigotry in the 1930s than a real person. (Violet will refuse his love because miscegenation is, for her, a bridge too far).
Daisy (Laura Bunting) and Violet (Kerrie Anne Greenland) are discovered by Terry (Daniel Belle) a has-been vaudeville booker who thinks he can get his career back by teaching the girls cute song-and-dance routines and placing them on the Orpheum Circuit. His colleague and sometime performer, Buddy (Gabriel Brown), is tasked with improving the girls’ performance skills.
Daisy is thrilled with this – she longs for fame – but for Violet, it’s a different story. All she wants is a quiet, normal life, far away from the eyes of the public. And she wants Buddy, who is fond of her, though has his reasons for not rushing into a relationship.
Daisy too is in love – with smooth talking Terry – who seems to return her interest, but refuses to make a move.
The show takes artistic license with the sisters’ lives but the milestones are close to truth – suing their legal ‘guardian’ for their independence, leading to a brief stint of high living; a potential publicity wedding; and turncoat managers.
Amidst all of this, the sisters grapple with a proposition: Terry, in an attempt to pursue Daisy, offers the sisters a chance to be surgically separated. This causes a great deal of angst as the sisters argue over their choices, especially as Violet’s wedding day draws ever closer.
As a whole, Side Show has problems. Deeply well-intentioned, it rarely stops feeling laboured. Its structure isn't entirely sound – the addition of necessary book material has made the scenes more cumbersome, and the show feels less like a smooth-moving whole than it does a patchwork of revisions. There are a few conflicts jostling to be the show's driving force (the potential medical separation, Daisy and Violet’s love for Terry and Buddy, the sisters’ growing wish for some time alone), which diminishes them all. And the show’s lyrics are frequently inane, which, coupled with muddy dialogue and emotive, though not especially exciting music, keeps the show sluggish.
But broken down from its sum into parts, there are a few pockets of magic. Carroll's fiercely compassionate production pairs well with the new book, taking great pains to protect the Hilton sisters and grant them the dignity they were frequently denied in their lives. The show is surprisingly progressive in its sensitivity; it resists the salacious and titillating avenues of storytelling, and sticks to something richer and more personal.
Angela White’s lovingly-crafted costumes for the sisters are a true delight – a beacon against Lauren Peters’ canny, sparse set. Amy Campbell’s choreography is playful, and smartly elevates the energy onstage after the more staid staging in the book scenes.
But this is a show about feelings, and it’s a show about Daisy and Violet Hilton. The show lives or dies by the ability of the actors playing the twins to win over the audience and gain their affection.
Bunting and Greenland more than deliver. A former Elphaba and Éponine respectively, the women are powerhouse singers who sound thrillingly right together. Their sisterly shorthand is well-observed and their relationship is affecting. Throughout the musical, the women insist that they are nothing alike (a standard Wakefield twin archetype), and it’s those differences that are the most fun to chart – Bunting’s Daisy is lively and daring, her facial expressions a shifting joy, while Greenland’s Violet is achingly demure and shy, often relying on her sister’s strength.
They are the force behind the show’s best moments. There are two numbers, 'I Will Never Leave You' and 'Who Will Love Me as I Am’, that soar. Both are duets between the sisters exploring their complicated love and deep connection. The first song is much better than the second, but they are classic musical theatre ballads, bursting with emotion – transcending the language of speech to musicalise a particular, overwhelming feeling. That’s the best thing about musical theatre, and those two moments go a long way in redeeming this galumphing musical.
They don’t make up for the show’s structural problems, but they might bring you to tears.