By Christopher Ryan
Side Show has been totally reworked to be the show it should have been when it premiered on Broadway in 1997. Back then, it didn’t last long closing after an embarrassing 91 performances at the Richard Rogers Theater. It didn’t win any Tonys the first time around (and with Lion King as its competition, it’s not hard to forgive Tony voters for any oversight). However, first time stage director, Bill Condon, who directed the film version of Dreamgirls, has created cinematic approach the musical that works.
Condon is heavily influenced in his approach by Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks” which serves as a framing device. In fact, during the opening number, we meet many of the same characters from that film. You might be able to even say that Side Show is the story of how the main characters Daisy and Violet Hilton (played with finesse by Emily Padgett and Erin Davie) got into the film. Tod Browning even makes an appearance at the end the show.
The book, re-written by Bill Condon (Condon wrote the screenplay for Chicago), makes this a really new show that deviates greatly from the original storyline. Many songs from the original score are cut and replaced. Is this a revival, or is this an entirely new show?
When you first see this musical, it’s the costumes and masks that really stand out. The side show freaks are really stunning, from a three legged man, a lizard man and even a Half Man Half Woman. Costume designer Paul Tazeweell and special makeup effect designers Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey have done a bang up job turning cast members into freaks.
The sets are fun, starting with a circus/side show set with large graphics of potential side show acts. Set pieces move off stage and provide for a good framing of the story. There are no wow moments – and that’s good because it would distract from the story.
Cast is all-around fantastic. It is a very large cast of Broadway professionals and local San Diegans added in for good measure (La Jolla Playhouse does a good job of keeping local actors employed).
While Condon shows a deft hand most of the time, every once in while he does border on schmaltz, such as when in the reprise of “Come Look at the Freaks” which takes place at a movie studio. The movie lights are pointed toward the audience as if to say they are the freaks. It reminded me of the American Dad episode Lincoln Lover that mocked Avant-garde Theater.
Henry Kreiger’s score is rich, but really lacks memorable songs. Kreiger’s score runs that gamut that includes jazz, ragtime, and even some torch songs. Standouts include “Come Look at the Freaks”, “Who Will Love Me as I Am” and comedy song “1+1=3.”
I know I’m going to be alone here, but I found David St. Louis’ Jake overpowering the rest of the cast. His voice is booming and feels out of place. This is not a slight on St. Louis—he was incredible in the Kirk Douglas theater production of Parade.
Keala Settle is really under-utilized. Keala was amazing in “Hands on a Hard Body” for which she received a Tony nomination.
Condon shows he really does know musical theater. This is truly fan’s production of this musical. This production will be going to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. next. It is worth a train ride down to Washington D.C. to see. But it’s obvious from the scope of the production that it really has eyes on returning to Broadway. I’m not sure if it can compete with “Wicked” and “Lion King” for the tourists, but I’m sure New Yorkers will like it enough to keep it running longer than the Original Broadway production.