For anyone who’s been wondering whatever happened to melody in modern musicals, Signature Theatre’s ravishingly sung Side Show offers a concise answer: Composer Henry Krieger has clearly been husbanding every available scrap for a good, old-fashioned, two-and-a-half-hour blowout.
Whereas Ragtime marches to anthems and Rent pulsates with rhythm, Side Show tells the story of real-life Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who were featured in Tod Browning’s film Freaks) with the sort of music that once made Broadway the world’s jukebox—soaring ballads, bright patter numbers, and torch songs to thrill to. The sung-through score is so rich in melodic invention that even the utility music it uses to connect the songs isn’t bothersome.
Side Show is also brimming with the sort of emotions and showbiz pizzazz—articulated in smart, uncloying lyrics by Bill Russell—that makes bursting into song seem entirely reasonable. One Hilton twin yearns for stardom, the other for a husband, and they both want to shed the ugly-duckling status imposed on them by a cruel world so they can be loved for who they are. They’re Fanny Brice times two. When they tell the world not to rain on their parade, it’s a duet.
Side Show, however, is also a musical that depends on the freak show voyeurism it appears to deplore, in order to keep its own charms from feeling awfully familiar. Photos of the 1998 Broadway production suggest a blend of Cabaret and Follies—showbiz sagas that crossed audience expectations with unconventional story lines—but Side Show’s story is essentially a doubling of Funny Girl’s. It even has a pair of charming “swells” who are bent on using the heroines as meal tickets. If the leading ladies weren’t joined at the hip, they’d be just like any number of other Broadway soubrettes with big dreams.
Joe Calarco’s gorgeously sung and acted—if concept-heavy—production means to replace voyeurism with a social conscience. He’s had set designer James Kronzer turn Signature’s auditorium into a circus tent, and he brings on his cast—dressed by Anne Kennedy in dark, Depression-era wools and cottons—to staticky news reports about the 1929 stock market crash. The show gets underway when tinkling music threads in among the news reports and a woman takes a mirror from her purse, peers into it, and sings to no one in particular, “come look at the freaks.” As the others add their voices, singing of a bearded lady and a reptile man, among others, individuals pop from the crowd impersonating those characters without any sort of grotesque makeup. The effect is that of some Grapes of Wrath extras putting on a show that has more to do with social commentary than sensationalism.
Still, when Daisy (Amy Goldberger) and Violet (Sherri Edelen) bump hips and hold that position, you have to acknowledge your eye is pulled to them. Modern sensibilities notwithstanding, there’s no question that the tug of freak show “odditoriums” is irresistible. Though you’ve paid little attention to the two women when they were moving independently, they’re hard to look away from once connected (and as if to prove the point, Calarco separates them periodically during the show, achieving the same effect again and again).
When a pair of penniless but handsome entrepreneurs arrive with a scheme to coach Daisy and Violet so they can leave the freak show for vaudeville, the twins are at once thrilled and terrified. Buddy (Will Gartshore) plans to teach them to sing and dance while Terry (Matt Bogart) provides business acumen. The other freak show denizens urge caution, especially Jake (Eric Jordan Young), an African-American who’s known professionally as the Cannibal King and is devoted to Violet. But the girls, partly because they immediately develop mad crushes—Violet on Buddy, Daisy on Terry—decide to take a shot at the big time.
What follows is relatively humdrum in plot terms—vaudeville, then the follies, then potential movie stardom, and always romance—but Violet and Daisy’s conjoined status keeps presenting complications. They sing of wanting “what everyone wants,” but their ideas of what everyone wants are markedly different, and issues of privacy and mutual dependence can’t help arising. Throw in boyfriends who have issues of their own, and you have at least an interesting variation on conventional musical plotting.
What you don’t have, I’m afraid, is a show that lends itself very well to the sort of conceptualizing in which Calarco specializes. On Broadway there was reportedly plenty of glitz and grandness, both of which the director eschews here in favor of theatrical intimacy. He has been wonderfully clever about certain things—harnessing the quasi-claustrophobic tightness of Signature’s 130-seat auditorium, for instance, to emphasize the problems that Violet and Daisy’s forced togetherness create for them and their partners. He has, in fact, brought many of the same character-illuminating tactics to Side Show that Signature’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, so often brings to the company’s forays into Sondheim.
But Calarco’s deliberately drab production design drains color and light from this showbiz saga without replacing them with much in the way of resonance. Let’s assume, for instance, that the reason he’s put everyone in depths-of-the-Great-Depression duds is to remind us that a society that worships dot-com millionaires tends to regard the less fortunate as freaks. Point taken. We’re all freaks by that reckoning, which jibes pretty well with what the director says in his program notes, and a staging fillip that’s the evening’s conclusion. But having made this point in the show’s first few seconds, the concept then ties Calarco’s hands, preventing him from introducing the visual richness we expect in a rags-to-riches story.
To stay true to the down-and-out aesthetic, characters never change costumes in the show, not even Violet and Daisy. They just add shawls or collars to suggest context—fur for an after-show party, feathers for a big production number—making it sometimes difficult to distinguish between songs that are supposed to be taking place on vaudeville stages and ones that are part of the plot. The vaudeville numbers that are meant to establish the twins’ escalating skills—especially an overcrowded Egyptian number—aren’t handled particularly well, and at some point it’s puzzling that the twins’ supposedly successful boyfriends are still in clothing that makes them look like they’ve just stepped out of a bread line.
Fortunately, all of this stops mattering the moment anyone launches into one of the emotion-packed ballads that erupt from the score every 10 minutes or so like clockwork. The female leads are both splendid. They’re emotionally on target—with Edelen making Violet’s hesitancy seem a kind of strength, and Goldberger giving Daisy’s ambition a soaring quality—and they’re downright spellbinding when they’re keening duets that Russell fills with more lyrical surprises than their titles—”Feelings You’ve Got to Hide,” “I Will Never Leave You,” “When I’m By Your Side”—might lead you to expect.
As the twins’ managers and beloveds, Bogart and Gartshore are similarly fine. Bogart’s Terry comes across as a surprisingly complex womanizer, and Gartshore gives Buddy a high-strung nervousness that takes some of the sting out of what seems like craven behavior. They’re both full-voiced and passionate, particularly when dealing with each other, which puts an interesting psychological spin on a tale in which romance between men and women keeps getting curtailed by physical constraints. Terry and Buddy are as joined-at-the-hip in business as the Hilton twins are conjoined physically, and in a sense, members of each same-gender pair understand their partners better than they understand the objects of their affection.
Also compelling is Eric Jordan Young’s romantically disappointed Jake, whose dark skin seems to make him a bigger freak in ’20s America than anything he could do onstage as Cannibal King. Krieger (who wrote the music for Dreamgirls) and Russell have given Jake an Act II clarion-call entitled “You Should Be Loved” that might as well be called “And I Am Telling You, I AM Goin’.” Young sings it with enough flat-out abandon to turn it into the evening’s biggest showstopper.
The rest of the cast is strong-voiced enough not to require amplification to give the score its due, though presumably music director Jay Crowder and his finely calibrated pit band deserve some of the credit for that. It’s nice to be reminded, as audience members often are at Signature, just how breathtaking it can be to have a song belted at you from just a few feet away, and in this show it happens with immensely satisfying regularity.
While I didn’t find the production quite as enthralling as the more stylistically adventurous Floyd Collins presented earlier this season, I should report that the audience—and I caught it with a regular crowd at a preview, not invitees at an opening—greeted Side Show about as warmly as any producer might wish. The audience leapt to its feet with a full-throated roar at the curtain call and appeared willing to applaud for as long as the cast was willing to bow. Not bad for a show that barely eked out a few months on Broadway. CP