Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
November 29, 2013
The show urges you to “Come Look at the Freaks.” That’s the opening number of “Side Show,” which began life on Broadway in 1997 and has been “reimagined” for a La Jolla Playhouse ‘revisal,’ presented in association with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where it runs next summer.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen the musical, including two local productions and the sensational mounting at the Colony Theatre in L.A. in 2002. There, the opening was a hard-edged, aggressive song that, like the whole musical, asked the pointed and discomfiting question: Who are the freaks, anyway? The congenitally disfigured, or their gapers, gawkers and exploiters?
That edge, that disturbing angle, has been totally sheared off for the new version. The creators, composer Henry Krieger and lyricist/librettist Bill Russell brought on award-winning Hollywood director Bill Condon, and together they smoothed it all into the blandness of a biopic. This is the sad but true tale of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who, born connected at the hip, were sold into a side show and later achieved some success in vaudeville and onscreen. Though they were talented, it was always the “freak factor” that was the attraction. They were repeatedly abused or exploited, even by the men who professed to love but them couldn’t get over their inseparability.
Except for the gentle, hulking Jake, who was promoted as an African “Cannibal King,” and left the side show with them as self-appointed protector. Jake always secretly loved Violet, but when he finally gets up the nerve to propose, she rejects him because of his skin color. He can accept her ‘difference,’ but she can’t accept his. This was a gasp-inducing moment in earlier versions, but it’s a fleeting toss-off now.
The extra backstory contributes little, as do jarring additions like the appearance of Houdini and the outing of Violet’s suitor. The sisters’ dual heartbreak is less palpable now; we lose the ache and the forced introspection, a confrontation of Otherness and tolerance.
Almost two-thirds of the score has been rewritten, but it’s the original numbers that linger, especially the anthem of acceptance: “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and the other poignant sister duet, “I Will Never Leave You.” The opening number and the comical “1 +1 = 3” remain memorable. Most of the rest of the music is fairly colorless, in melody and lyrics.
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are appealing as fame-hungry Daisy and reticent Violet. As Jake, David St. Louis has the most charisma on the stage.
The set is overly fussy, but the costumes are wonderful, the orchestrations excellent, the masks and makeup noteworthy. But ironically, the new “Side Show” made me feel, dare I say it, disconnected.
“Side Show” runs through December 15, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©2013 PAT LAUNER