Crisply staged, cleanly replotted, and sung to the rafters by a cast seemingly on loan from the celestial choir, the overhauled Side Show onstage at the Kennedy Center is the revival this cult-favorite musical deserves—one that promises to get the show back to Broadway for another crack at full-on theater-classic status.
Inspired by the real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, Side Show made stars of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner in 1997, though the musical itself drew mixed reviews and didn’t last long. This time, it’s likely to be hosannas and bouquets all around: With a fleshed-out backstory for its central characters and a richer muddle of mixed motivations for the men who take them from circus sideshow to vaudeville stardom, the show feels more urgent and personal than ever. The best of the songs remain—including, of course, the two powerhouse duets for the leads, “Who Will Love Me as I Am” and “I Will Never Leave You”—while oddities like “Tunnel of Love” have been excised and new material judiciously brought in. It’s brighter, bolder, and more specific in its vision of the “freaks” who form the Hilton sisters’ surrogate family—which may dismay some who admired the original’s stripped-down aesthetic. But there’s no arguing with the ultimate effect; this is one of the tightest, classiest musicals to play the Eisenhower Theater in ages.
“I’m Daisy,” sings Emily Padgett, echoed by Erin Davie’s “I’m Violet,” and then together they chime: “We’re Siamese twins.” And it’s in the simple, sweet music Henry Krieger gives them in that introduction that the essential chemistry of the show gets established; they may be the prize attraction of a “freak show,” but they’re fresh-faced and appealing, instantly likable, the kind of characters an audience loves to root for. Bill Russell’s story (tweaked, in this reworking, by director Bill Condon) traces their rise to fame and their struggle to find individual contentment, and if that would be an oft-told tale with a single heroine at its heart, the dynamic between spotlight-seeking Daisy and shyer Violet makes it more complicated, more poignant; they’re always together but not always in sync, and in that tension is where Side Show’s heart really beats. “Come Look at the Freaks,” the cast insists at the outset and again at the evening’s end, but what they’re really doing is daring you not to love them.
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