Daisy and Violet Hilton (Erin Davie and Emily Padgett) were a pair of British conjoined twins who found success in the United States as a vaudeville act in the 1930s and eventually appeared in Tod Browning’s Freaks and the later, more exploitative Chained for Life. Side Show, the musical based on the Hiltons’ lives, was a commercial failure when it premiered on Broadway in the late ‘nineties, but its first revival at the St. James Theatre promises to be more lasting. The revised book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger are surprisingly undated and avoid Hollywood-style patronization, which is an accomplishment in and of itself considering that the material largely deals with disability. Forrest Gump this ain’t.
Side Show opens with Daisy and Violet headlining a freak show run by Sir (Robert Joy), a malicious, Dickensian character who works his employees to exhaustion but, in fact, proves something of a conflicted parental figure since he is the only person who offers them employment. The twins’ peers include a Geek (Matthew Patrick Davis), a 3-Legged Man (Brandon Bieber), The Dog Boy (Javier Ignacio), The Human Pin Cushion (Barrett Martin), The Lizard Man (Don Richard, who also plays Browning), and the World’s Tiniest Cossacks (Josh Walker and Jordana James). This makeshift family is separated, however, when promoter Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) and choreographer Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) appear and promise to make Daisy and Violet stars. They bring along Jake (David St. Louis), the “cannibal” of the side show who manages the twins and nurses an unspoken love for Violet, a love that is challenged when Buddy, a closeted homosexual, reluctantly agrees to marry her. Terry, meanwhile, resists his attraction to Daisy but promises to make her happy if she agrees to an operation that would separate the twins.
Without a doubt, the unsung stars of this show are Cookie Jordan (Makeup Design) and Dave and Lou Elsey (Special F/X Makeup), who create an absolutely stunning cast of “freaks” that not only succeed in stage verisimilitude but would bear the scrutiny of Browning’s film closeups. Ms. Davie and Ms. Padgett also have gorgeous, seat-rattling voices, and Mr. St. Louis’ basso proves heartbreaking. My only misgiving is the decision to force a false circularity on the narrative of Daisy and Violet’s life, with the concluding number, a reprise of the opening “Come Look at the Freaks,” suggesting that Browning’s film is nothing more than a glorified, high-budget version of Sir’s show. In fact, Browning provides one of the most sensitive cinematic looks at physical outcasts, one that has hardly been topped as liberal politics and scholarship have become more sophisticated and less condescending towards disability. And director Bill Condon should know better—his connection to classic horror movies extends at least as far back to his 1998 biopic of James Whale, Gods and Monsters, if not less explicitly to his 1981 screenwriting debut, the ‘fifties-style body snatcher riff Strange Behavior.
Still, this is a relatively minor complaint about a show that is otherwise entirely laudable. If more musicals were this compelling and this intelligent, Broadway might be able to shed its reputation for peddling touristy fluff.