In 1997, a musical called Side Show based on the true story of Depression-era vaudeville stars and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton opened on Broadway. While the show would go on to receive four Tony Award nominations (including an unprecedented shared Leading Actress nomination for co-stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner), its lukewarm critical reception and poor ticket sales caused it to close after only three months and 91 performances.
Fast forward to 2014. Side Show has been retooled and rebirthed into a spectacular and must-see Broadway experience. It’s a rare second chance that builds upon and improves its source material to create something fresh, contemporary, and as visually stunning as it is musically brilliant. And just like that, Michael Keaton’s Birdman is not the only one flying his freak flag at the St. James Theatre these days.
Academy Award-winner Bill Condon (“Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) directs this new darker take, and contributes additional book material that focuses on numerous recently discovered biographical details about the Hilton sisters. For instance, the characters of Auntie and Sir, who helped with the birth of the twins but abused them through their adolescence in an attempt to make a profit off of them, take pivotal supporting roles here; they were not featured at all back in 1997. Also not included in the original was the character of Harry Houdini, who appears briefly in the new production to teach the sisters the value of sticking up for oneself and how to ignore critics. His song is aptly called: “All In The Mind.”
And it’s not just the show’s book that has been revised. Author / lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger have reworked the music to include orchestrations by Harold Wheeler and musical direction by Sam Davis. Performed by a live orchestra, the score also incorporates plenty of new songs. They include “Ready to Play,” a big number that the twins sing upon arriving in America; “Cut Them Apart,” sung by threatening doctors during a horrifying flashback scene; and “Very Well Connected,” which the Hiltons’ future agent Terry sings while trying to convince them to leave the side show. This also means that a number of songs from the original production were either cut or condensed, making this “Side Show” truly feel like a completely new musical.
Bringing the Hilton sisters to life are Great White Way veterans Erin Davie and Emily Padgett. As Violet, Davie sympathetically plays the more introverted, quiet and naïve sister, while Padgett’s Daisy is brazen, relentless, flirty and full of charisma. As the sisters begin to fall in love and start feeling the effects of fame, the closeness of their relationship never wavers, even at the suggestion that they may be surgically separated. And though their journey may find them yearning for different things at times, their undying support for one another and the self-sacrifice they’re always willing to make for the other is nothing short of beautiful and inspiring. That beauty is on dazzling display in the show stopping, best song, “I Will Never Leave You.”
While it’s difficult to pit these two performers against one another when they’re literally connected at the hip on stage, it’s Padgett who truly shines as the show’s MVP. Davie is undoubtedly a colossal talent, but Padgett’s zesty interpretation of Daisy is packed with perfect comedic timing and scene-stealing panache. And her sublime belting is alone worth the price of a ticket. Mixed with Davie’s more traditional soprano voice, Padgett’s power pop tendencies are amplified to a breathtaking sound that should satisfy fans of classic and contemporary musicals alike.
Davie and Padgett bring to life the yin and yang of the sisters’ complex opposing personalities with enough contrast and heart to carry the entire show on their own. Luckily, though, they don’t have to because the entire cast is superb. As Jake, a man hired to watch over the girls, David St. Louis is a force to be reckoned with due to his supremely rich and honey-smooth baritone voice. From “The Devil You Know” to the gorgeously somber “You Should Be Loved,” his passionate delivery is the stuff that turns actors into stars. The same can be said for Ryan Silverman, whose rendition of Terry’s “Private Conversation” is a jaw-dropping master class in tenor performance. And in no recent memory has an entire ensemble been as in sync as during the closing notes of the Act I finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am.” With its layers of harmonies and massive cast, the show pulls off the incredible feat of making these performers all sound like one very powerful voice.
To create the illusion of Davie and Padgett being conjoined, costume designer Paul Tazewell had to prepare outfits that could both hold the ladies together and stay intact during dance numbers. He used numerous zippers, magnets and sewn-together threads to achieve this. “It was important to know where to trick the eye,” he told The Associated Press. Ranging from the grim, nightmarish, Tim Burton-esque look of the opening carnival to the glamorous and sparkly world of Hollywood, the meticulously crafted costumes tell the story of the Hiltons’ rise to stardom in a remarkable way. The imaginative team behind the new Side Show has accomplished something truly stunning. They’ve not only resurrected a cult hit, but also transformed it into the strongest contender for Best Musical Revival at next year’s Tony Awards.
Get your tickets here. Just like the tagline promises … it will never leave you.