Everywhere you look, pop culture is embracing the freaks. Whether it’s American Horror Story or Lady Gaga’s little monsters or, hell, Kim Kardashian, Americans seem to have a boundless appetite for outrageous physical anomalies. So it seems like a perfect moment to revive Side Show, the 1997 Broadway musical about real-life conjoined twins from the 1930s, Daisy and Violet Hilton. Despite star-making turns by Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, who shared a Tony nomination for their hip-to-hip performance, and a score by Henry Krieger featuring the breakout ballad “I Will Never Leave You,” the original closed after just three months on Broadway and gained the rep that any theater producer dreads: a problem show.
Happily, Side Show has found a fixer: the Oscar-winning film writer-director Bill Condon, who brought another of Krieger’s Broadway hits, Dreamgirls, to the big screen. Condon has greatly revised the script, adding new scenes and characters (Harry Houdini!) and reworking the original love quadrangle between the twins (Erin Davie and Emily Padgett) and the two men (Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik) who saved them from the circus and brought them to the legitimate stage. Condon has also swapped out some songs and added new ones, like “Typical Girls Next Door,” a bouncy vaudeville number for our leading ladies.
The result is a fluid, cinematic production of a still-problematic show. The score is still a mixed bag, beginning with a jarringly off-putting opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” rasped out by Robert Joy, the mostly one-dimensional circus owner and exploiter of our heroines. And Condon’s narrative tweaks introduce almost as many obstacles as improvements. (No sooner does Violet’s crush, Hydzik’s showman Buddy, gain some sympathy as a closeted gay man than he’s called upon to make a purely selfish, careerist move.)
But when Davie and Padgett appear on stage, they bring the emotional underpinning of the story into sharp, goosebump-raising focus. Simply put, they’re astonishing in projecting both sisterly symbiosis and distinct personalities. And they sing like, well, dreamgirls. Grade: B