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BWW Reviews: Reinvented SIDE SHOW World Premieres at La Jolla Playhouse

Side Show/book & lyrics by Bill Russell/music by Henry Krieger/directed by Bill Condon/La Jolla Playhouse/through December 15

The musical Side Show played Broadway in 1997 for 91 performances and was Tony nominated but never got the recognition it deserved. Like Jason Robert Brown's Parade, another noteworthy Broadway miss, it's worth the attention, but its dark grotesque presentation of carnival freak shows is not the most appealing fare for commercial theatre audiences. Many are repelled by the sight of a man with three legs, a bearded lady, a half-man, half-woman or in the case of Daisy and Violet Hilton, by the appearance of twins who are conjoined. The girls hated the term Siamese twins, for they were not Siamese, and also if people asked them if they wanted to be normal. What is normal? Now in a totally revamped production at La Jolla Playhouse, on its way to the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2014, Side Show has wisely retained its original collaborative team of book writer and lyricist Bill Russell, music composer Henry Krieger and director Bill Condon. And... with a stunning cast, Side Show comes up a big winner and the hottest ticket in town.

There's a much deeper, richer look into the private, personal lives of Daisy and Violet in this new version. Not that it wasn't present in the original, but not enough time was devoted to their emotions, the way, for example, that they both envisioned and felt about love and marriage and how they fit, disabled, into the big picture....and more specifically, with each other. There is also a neatly fit segment or back-story about where the girls came from, how they were grossly mistreated by relatives and how they ended up in Sir's charge at the side show...all of this putting more emphasis on their psychological makeup. Apart from these additions, the plot and characters are pretty much unchanged, the exception being that perhaps there are more circus freaks in the opening number. Most of the changes are reflected in 12 new songs added or substituted within the entire framework of the piece. Russell and Krieger have added songs that hit a nerve like "Typical Girls Next Door", "Stuck with Me", "Leave Me Alone" and a beautiful one "All in the Mind" sung by Harry Houdini, a character I believe was not in the first production, who is only there for this one number to make the girls realize that they can deal with their loneliness and still live productive lives.

Conflict arises in the basic storyline when Terry Connor an agent representing the Orpheum Circuit (Manoel Felciano) encourages Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) to write an audition song for the Hiltons that they will sing in the hopes of catapulting them into vaudeville. Daisy (Emily Padgett), the extrovert, flirtatious seeker of fame and fortune loves the idea but Violet (Erin Davie), the more introverted one, would rather find a husband and is doubtful about taking the risk. For both of them it means leaving the frightening world of the side show behind, run by Sir (Robert Joy), their evil-minded guardian. Yet there is some security in this place with those performers who have become their family. What makes matters worse is Daisy's attraction to handsome Terry and Violet's, although unspoken, love for Buddy. A business deal is hatched, they leave, and the girls become misled into thinking that the two men care about them personally. Jake (David St. Louis), a big strong man who was known as Cannibal King in the freak show, is their truest friend and protector and leaves to work as bodyguard for them in the vaudeville gig, always with his silent, romantic eye on Violet and his mind made up to make them see the truth about what is really going on, and who is truly out to serve their best interests. When a wedding between Violet and Buddy is planned for big promotional purposes in Texas, Sir comes back into their lives to stir up trouble, offering some secrets about Terry Connor and his entire scheme. There is a somewhat happy ending for the girls, but not the one that each had dreamed of... however, their love and attachment to one another is undeniably strong "I Will Never Leave You", one of the most beautiful of the original songs along with "Who Will Love Me as I Am?"

The ensemble are fantastic. Padgett and Davie are beautiful and terrific triple threat performers. Felciano is superb as Terry, keeping a shadowy past locked within and never exposing his real side until "A Private Conversation", where his pure fantasies in the guise of emotional stability come pouring forth. St. Louis is dynamite as Jake and his "You Should Be Loved" is a jolting heartbreaker. Hydzik, Joy and the rest of the 20-member cast are all riveting, and it is great to see the electric Keala Settle as the Fortune Teller and also playing a bevy of other roles. Bill Condon has lovingly directed and Anthony Van Laast has provided some ripping choreography. David Rockwell's sets are sensational as are Paul Tazewell's costumes. What a treat to see how Daisy and Violet's clothes and wigs change elegantly as they progress onto higher ground!

Side Show demands to be seen. True, it is not a show for the squeamish, but it contains so much relevance to the daily workings of humanity. Who is normal, after all? And...everyone deserves love, and the manner in which Daisy and Violet treat one another is a great life lesson for one and all. Thanks to Russell, Krieger and Condon, the show has new songs that delve into the girls' interior feelings, and the entire show benefits to the max. Side Show is now a sturdier, more complete portrait of the Hilton twins, and still high on entertainment, maybe higher.

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From This Author Don Grigware

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