A Double Take

A Double Take

FEATURE_sideshow FROM LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

“Side Show” shows off enormous production values and strong music, but trips over a lackluster plot

A revival of the 1997 Broadway musical that opened with little fanfare, “Side Show” follows the true story of the conjoined-at-the-hip Hilton twins, who were smash successes on the vaudeville scene in the 1930s. Now, it returns to the La Jolla Playhouse with director Bill Condon (“Chicago,” “Dreamgirls”) whose version is a complete re-imagining of the show that hit Broadway 16 years ago. Condon’s rendition features a number of new, original songs, a fresh cast — some of them award-winners and nominees — and an expert team of designers to bring this oddball of a musical back to life.
The story of the Hiltons seems a ready-made subject for a musical, if a difficult one to put on stage logistically. Some practical concerns arise immediately, like how the two actresses who play the Hilton twins (Erin Davie and Emily Padgett) will dance effectively when literally joined at the hip. Because the musical is based on a true story, even more pressing questions arise, since the real Hiltons’ story didn’t have the happiest ending: The twins ended up alone, fameless, in debt and dismissed to obscurity.

This adaptation manages to dodge the Hiltons’ grim future: “Side Show” follows the girls’ rise to stardom, from their beginnings as adopted children in England, then their lives as actual side show attractions in Texas and, finally, their blindingly fast journey toward the upper crust of vaudeville theater in New York, thanks to businessmen and fellow performers Terry Connor (Manoel Felciano) and Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik). Both of these men become love interests for the twins, and while a conjoined-twin love story might seem like a complex plot to take on, neither romance has much weight behind it. While the twins’ eccentric and conniving legal guardian, Sir (Robert Joy, “CSI: NY”), and the love interest/corrupt business manager Connor, are occasional threats, intense conflict never seems to materialize; instead, only some awkward romance stories and a sweet sisterly love story remain — though we do get some great musical numbers along the way.

Because no real conflict pervades the show, its climax falls flat. The main antagonist reveals his dark revelations about our twins and then the characters shrug and dismiss him; there is never any threat that the twins will be harmed, or even inconvenienced, by this hiccup. They experience little discrimination based on their condition, little challenge in their rise to stardom.

Problems with the structure and plot of the show are overshadowed by the music and production. Lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger’s new music add to the solid, if flawed, original run they contributed to in 1997. Even the opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” is a toe-tapping, rousing ensemble tune with a central musical theme that will get stuck in your head for days. Many of the cast members stand out as incredible performers and singers, regardless of the material’s weaknesses: The twins have voices that are both vulnerable and powerful in their many numbers detailing their private moments. They carry most of what emotional weight is produced by the production through strong numbers such as “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” — both songs that showcase these women both struggling to live a normal life and not wanting to give up the closeness they have with each other.
Ultimately, “Side Show” is a toe-tapping musical with a knockout cast and arresting numbers, but the central story simply isn’t all that compelling. There are moments of brilliance, as in some of the beautiful numbers the twins sing about their loneliness, or that their friend Jake sings about his own, but these are fleeting. It’s certainly a must-see for fans of musical theatre on campus — it’s one of the biggest productions the La Jolla Playhouse will likely see for a good while. However, if you’re looking for meatier dramatic material, “Side Show” ends up being, well, something of a side show.

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