Freaks and Geeks

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kennedy center side showFor hard-core musical theater queens there are few shows that have the  same mesmerizing cult status pull as that of Side Show,  Harry Krieger’s and Bill Russell’s (of Dreamgirls fame) 1997 musical about real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who rose from circus attractions to movie stars (in Tod Browning’s infamous film Freaks). Side Show flopped on Broadway, closing after 91 performances, but its dazzling soundtrack full of loneliness and alienation, and the heartbreakingly gorgeous voices of its original stars Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley (who were co-nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress) lived on in many a theatre gay’s CD player through the 2000s.  Side Show’s legendary glow has also been deepened by the fact that not many people have actually seen it performed since regional and community theater stagings have been few and far between (really, if you are taking your Ethel Merman-loving, West Side Story-belting mom and grandma to see a musical, I’m sure one about conjoined twins wouldn’t be your first, or even tenth, choice). Although I’m familiar with the soundtrack, I missed the acclaimed Chicago production several years back. So when I heard Bill Condon, who directed the film version of Dreamgirls (which I liked a lot) and was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay of Chicago was going to direct a re-imagined, re-written revival of Side Show in collaboration with Krieger and Russell for the Kennedy Center, I was buying a plane ticket to Washington DC faster than you can say “Jennifer Hudson.”   So last weekend I was at the first performance of this new Side Show, together with a whole army of musical gays, and boy was it quite the memorable evening. Bill Condon’s take on Side Show is sad and luminous, cinematic yet theatrical, entertaining, exhilarating, big-hearted.  My fervent readers know I rarely say this given my ambivalence about Broadway as a representative of American theater, but this play deserves, no demands, to be seen back on the Main Stem by audiences who ignored it the first time around.

There has been quite a lot of work in this new production (Condon is credited with additional book material as well) and it has clarified the story-telling and heightened the dramatic stakes. In the riveting, fast-paced Act One the backstory behind how Daisy and Violet became the star attractions of the circus freak show give more clarity and credence to their motivations and desires.  The transition from their life in the circus to their new lives in vaudeville with the two men who  promote, teach, and fall in love with them, their agent Terry who is in love with Violet, and their co-performer Buddy who is drawn to Daisy, is also clearly portrayed.  I think the second act is a little bit more problematic since it comes off as a series of big solo production numbers without the more polished narrative construction of the first act.  But Condon’s work as a director is very impressive and also astounding given that he has no previous theater credits. The opening number “Come Look at the Freaks” is stunningly staged and performed, both terrifying and heart-wrenching as the sisters and the other attractions (a Bearded Lady, the human Venus de Milo, a 7 foot tall man, a man with “reptilian skin” among others, in vivid, beautifully realized costumes by Paul Tazewell and meticulously constructed prosthetics and make-up) are presented to the audience by their handler and master of ceremonies, the ruthless Sir.  Condon’s thoughtful, canny use of blocking and lighting (full of spotlights, color, and gauze, exceptionally designed by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) evoke theatrical equivalents of film techniques such as split-screens and montages (the  staging of Act Two’s “Private Conversation”  for one is marvelously cinematic). But his stage direction isn’t purely flashy or stylistic; he is able to create intimate, heartfelt moments such as in the poignant “Typical Girls Next Door”.

But this is a play about conjoined twins so Condon’s great work will rise or fall with the performances of his two lead actors who will have to spend two hours and a half literarily joined at the hip, dancing and singing together in what needs to be perfect unison. Skinner’s and Ripley’s original performances are still talked about in hush tones by those who saw them, but Emily Padgett (who I saw in Chicago in the lamentable Neo-Nazi musical White Noise)  as the outgoing, ambitious Daisy and Erin Davie as the shy, retiring Violet are just breathtakingly great.  The degree of performance difficulty is unimaginable but both display so much jaw-dropping commitment, bravado, and singular focus. Their show-stopping Act One closer, “Who Will Love Me As I Am” whose musical high notes and emotional demands require Olympic champion-level stamina is breathtaking and actually as good as the Skinner and Ripley performance (check out the rare footage on YouTube). Padgett and Davie have crafted magnetic, beautifully-nuanced performances – they are innocent and self-aware, strong-hearted and self-doubting, gullible when their palpable desires to be normal women overtake them, ferocious when they have to protect one another. Davie in particular invests so much detail in Violet, with every furrowed brow and shaky handshake and uncomfortable shifting a portrait of a person betrayed by nature and the world.

The entire ensemble is enthralling. Matthew Hydziks’ conflicted Buddy is very well-acted and well-sung.  Ryan Silverman’s Terry is appropriately slick but also emotionally devastating in “My Private Conversation.”  David St. Louis plays Jake, the twins’ protector and former circus performer, with gravitas and generosity, stopping the house in Act Two with the anguished “You Should Be Loved”.   The cast performs in evocative sets by the brilliant set designer, the multi-awarded David Rockwell, switching from carnival tents to vaudeville houses to a posh New York apartment.  And Krieger’s and Russell’s score is memorable, lush, emotional, impressively and confidently tapping genres from 20s Broadway musical to contemporary pop to blues and jazz, all gorgeously orchestrated by Harold Wheeler and arranged by Sam Davis. Side Show at the Kennedy Center (and hopefully on its way to the big, bright lights of New York City in the same trajectory as former Kennedy Center hits Ragtime and Follies) is one heck of a show and well worth flying into Washington DC for.

Side Show is at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW,  Washington DC until July 13.


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