Music by Henry Krieger
Book &Lyrics by Bill Russell
Additional Book Material by Bill Condon
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
The travelling freak show is a long tradition with a chequered history. Although generally seen by the public as a thing of the past, recent TV shows like Freakshow and American Horror Story as well as the popularity of close relatives Circus of Horrors and Ripley’s Believe It or Not show the public’s continued fascination with the grotesque and misshapen. Whereas in days gone by the freak show was a place for people to point and laugh, as long ago as 1932 filmmaker Todd Browning recognised that these freaks were people with hopes, dreams, fears and feelings too.
The musical Side Show addresses these issues by looking at the lives of real-life conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton and their efforts to lead a happy life while being regarded by the world as freaks. As with Browning’s movie Freaks (which Violet and Daisy starred in) Side Show presents the collected ‘attractions’ as possessing a strong family ethic with the outside world threatening their happiness.
This musical originally opened on Broadway in 1997 and despite positive reviews and four Tony nominations, it closed after just 91 performances. This revival production appeared on Broadway for a limited run over Christmas 2014.
Central to this unusual story are Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as Violet and Daisy. There must be very few more difficult challenges presented to a pair of performers than playing believable conjoined twins on stage, but even on this soundtrack Davie and Padgett display an amazing ability to have two distinct personalities while also being two sides of the same coin.
Individually they both have beautiful singing voices but when they join forces the result is electric. Close harmonies blend perfectly to give an audible representation of their affliction, and when the inevitable conflict between them materialises the score reflects this, with both extremes perfectly illustrated in “Stuck With You/Leave Me Alone”.
The rest of the cast are equally impressive with particular mention to Robert Joy’s freak show proprietor Sir, and the girls’ potential suitors Tony and Buddy as played by Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik. David St. Louis is also excellent as Jake (aka The Cannibal King) particularly during the showstopping “The Devil You Know”.
Henry Krieger’s score generally avoids the Barnum-esque circus calliope style and instead favours referencing vaudeville in many of the songs such as “One Plus One Equals Three”. Elsewhere the music offers tender ballads and yet the whole of the score maintains a constant identity throughout. But with a nice score, excellent performers and good lyrics from Bill Russell, Side Show never really equals the sum of its parts. It lacks that certain something that makes a good musical great and just like a real life side show, it is a momentary diversion that offers little to tempt you back.
Given the subject matter, it is certainly ironic that this musical does not have anything to set it apart from all the rest.