Come Look at the Freaks!” intones the carnival barker at the opening of the unique and musically eclectic and beloved cult musical Side Show and you cannot look away. Now playing at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, this is a challenging and absorbing production performed to the hilt with Henry Krieger’s surging music and Bill Russell’s verbally arresting lyrics sung with supreme vocal purity by a very tightly -coordinated ensemble of actors. Under the Direction of Bill Condon, this current edition of Sideshow (which was developed in association with the La Jolla Playhouse) manages to merge glitz and realism to portray the famous Siamese Twins (conjoined at the hip), the Hilton Sister-Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie)-in the most heartbreaking and poignantly real fashion I have yet to see.
Nothing less than the shattering of all illusion is repeatedly enforced in this version-as we see the Sisters mocked by their Auntie (Blair Ross-seemingly straight out of Charles Dickens!), exploited and ridiculed by their Carnival “owner” Sir (Robert Joy), and ogled at by High Society at a New Year’s Eve bash and guffawed at by bigoted Texans at a Centennial celebration. Even through their supposed “fame” as performers, the element of exploitation of their uniqueness is all too evident. This approach (showing the anguish and torment of these supposed “freaks” of nature) by Director Condon and Book writer Bill Russell is subverted at times by diverting pastiche numbers, whimsical wordplay and dazzling choreography (especially in the tap-dancing standout “Stuck With You.”). Comic undertones and even all-out whimsical numbers such as “1 +1=3” help to alleviate the tension for a while but these scenes really underscore the sorrow that the Hilton Sisters endure underneath the surface.
The original Broadway version (1997) was highly stylized and left much up to the audience’s imagination and the acclaimed Signature Theatre version (Arlington, VA) several years ago, played intensely with the themes of “what is normal?” and “ just who are the freaks ?” This version, however, appears to hit just the right balance between showing the early life of the Hiltons and their carnival friends (the Bearded Lady, the 3-Legged Man, the Reptile Man, etc.) in a more realistic, familial, almost-picaresque manner and the later scenes (especially in Act Two) that portray the supposedly famous and glamorous life they are playing out on the world’s stage ( via vaudeville and, even, an announced and highly-profiled wedding-to-be). This production features new songs as well as new characters.
Though the Hilton sisters were, indeed, a unique phenomenon, this production propels the audience into their orbit (and their fellow sideshow friends) by the continued emphasis on the universal theme of “What does normal mean?” as well as themes of individualism versus assimilation, acceptance versus ridicule and image versus reality. Themes are intermingled to such a degree that it is not until Act Two is well underway that we realize the dark and highly psychological terrain that we are being pulled into.
As the audience is immersed with no less than twenty-four musical songs/showcases (exceptional Musical Direction and Arrangements by Sam Davis and Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler), we realize that we are increasingly identifying with the Hiltons to such a degree that one is left with a feeling of emotional identification by the time the Sisters have sung their two stunning duets, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You.” Ms. Davie and Ms. Padgett are a marvel to behold in their silvery soprano voices, their precise diction and their totally synchronized movement They hold this Sideshow together from start to finish. Credit must be given to Choreographer Anthony Van Laast not only for the individual movement but for so many of the amazing and intricate dance numbers.
The erotic tension and frustration of the Sisters is given palpable presence by the romantic interests of a well-cast suitor and promoter, Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) and Terry (Ryan Silverman). Silverman “brought the house down” with prolonged applause in his soul-searching and explosive lament “A Private Conversation”; Terry’s cry of need was emphasized by a shadowy-silhouetted Daisy (Padgett) who was lit exquisitely in the background by acclaimed Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. (Throughout the entire show specific moment such as emotional flashbacks and shadowy tableaus of the circus family were lit with finesse and originality).
Hydzik showed strong stage presence and authority and displayed his vocal chops in every number. The character of Jake (David St. Louis) was a knockout in his number with Davie, “You Should be Loved.” The romantic interludes of the second act were delivered through choreography and song in intriguing ways as when erotic frustration was enacted in “A Private Conversation” and erotic abandon and joy was humorously evoked in “1 + 1 = 3”. The large orchestra aided immeasurably in all the ravishing vocal proceedings. Since this show is almost totally sung-through, the wonderful arrangements and superb vocalizing, aided by the large orchestra, cannot be emphasized enough.
Scenic Design by David Rockwell was meticulous and inventive. From the bare bulbs of a sideshow hung on a high wire to a series of metallic-looking scaffolding, catwalks, stairs and raised platforms to utilize the stage space to best advantage-the design of the show was appropriately dark at the beginning and more open during the Second Act New Year’s Eve and romantic encounters. Very interesting was the utilization of striking banners unfurled to show silhouetted scenes and painted visuals. Rockwell’s work reminded me of the renowned Designer Eugene Lee at times.
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell was a visual feast to behold from the more homespun and eccentric outfits of the carnival folk to the stunning sequined and beaded gowns of the Hiltons.
This is a challenging, absorbing and meticulously produced Side Show. The Kennedy Center’s production, above all, is a radically reconceived Side Show that will live on for the ages. It should, deservedly, garner a large and loyal following. It is so multi-layered, that it demands repeated viewings.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Side Show is playing through July 13, 2014 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater- 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.