Sunday, 28 December 2014

Bill Condon's revision of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's SIDE SHOW at the St. James

     The 1997 musical SIDE SHOW had a short run even though some critics praised it and many who saw it loved it. It quickly became a cult musical, beloved by musical theater aficionados. It is brave and a bit mad to bring it back to Broadway. This production of SIDE SHOW, which has travelled to New York from the La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center, is more of a revision than a revival. Director Bill Condon has rewritten and refocussed Bill Russell's book and Henry Krieger's score contains some new songs. This "new and improved" version of the show has suffered the same fate as the original. It's closing next week after a run of three months.
     It was clear at last night's performance that the extremely enthusiastic audience loved the show. Why is this critically praised production a commercial flop once again? The fate of SIDE SHOW says a lot about the current state of Broadway. Successful Broadway shows are now brands that are marketed worldwide. Like McDonalds, Disney's THE LION KING, which opened the same season as SIDE SHOW, is everywhere. It is the perfect example of the musical as a product. Universal's WICKED repeated the process. Tourists and folks who may see one Broadway show a year flock to these shows rather than try something new. Disney can pour infinite amounts of money into marketing their shows. One cannot blame Disney for the fate of SIDE SHOW and the other recent musical productions that are faltering at the box office (ON THE TOWN and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS are barely holding on and THE LAST SHIP has been saved from sinking by Sting's willingness to join the cast). Broadway audiences aren't willing to gamble when tickets are insanely expensive. I saw SIDE SHOW, ON THE TOWN, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS and THE LAST SHIP for $45 thanks to my tdf membership, but a show cannot survive when a sizeable percentage of the audience is paying half or  a quarter of the regular ticket price. Frankly, in the current climate, you'd have to be certifiably insane to invest in a Broadway musical. Last season the producers of the quirky, delightful GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER kept a losing venture alive for over six months in the hopes of help from the Tony Awards. In a season of mediocre musicals (except for the superb BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, another example of audiences avoiding a really fine musical), GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE swept the Tonys and has been a hit ever since. How many investors can afford to pour money into a losing venture for months in hopes of a win at the Tonys? Maybe you have to be equally insane to invest $150 or more in a ticket to a Broadway show -- and there is the major problem. No wonder people want to go to shows that offer them some social status -- "I saw THE BOOK OF MORMON on Broadway!"). There are a batch of new musicals and revivals (GIGI again -- why??) coming in this Spring, most notably AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Good luck to them all. We'll see which of them is still running at the end of 2015.
     Back to SIDE SHOW. Fans of the show know that it is the story of the conjoined twins the Violet and Daisy Hilton (Erin Davie and Emily Padgett). In this much improved version, we follow them from the moment they are discovered at a touring freak show by Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) an ambitious producer of vaudeville acts and his choreographer friend, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), to their discovery by Hollywood director Tod Browning, who put them in his classic 1932 film FREAKS. The show also traces the sisters' discovery of love. Terry loves Daisy, put can only conceive of a relationship with her if she is surgically separated from her sister (possible, but one sister is likely to die in the process). Buddy is gay, but sees a relationship with Violet as a possible salvation from loneliness. The wedding is a giant publicity stunt that will catapult the sisters into even greater celebrity. There is more of the sisters' back story than there was in the original version and less focus on the potential kinkiness of any attempt at a sexual relationship. Moving Buddy's sexuality from subtext to text makes his behavior more coherent. The girls sing "I Want to Be Like Everyone Else." Of course, they can't be. Nor can the gay man or the African-American in 1932. This is a fascinating story well told. Henry Krieger's score is terrific, Bill Russell's lyrics less so. Yes, this is a fine musical that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
     Bill Condon's production is excellent. David Rockwell's sets are simple, but highly effective. Paul Tazewell's costumes move us from the tawdry world of the freak show to glitzy vaudeville numbers. The cast is uniformly fine. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett look like twins, but delineate their differences in personality, particularly in the second act where they are at odds -- How do you fight with a conjoined twin? How can you possibly have a moment to yourself, much less intimacy with a lover? More important, they sing together magnificently. Silverman and Hydzik make their character's dilemmas convincing. David St. Louis is superb as the devoted African-American protector of the twins, He deserves the ovations he gets for his three big numbers. Robert Joy is appropriately sleazy as the freak show producer.
     One observation. At the intermission there was no line at the ladies' room and a long line at the men's room. There were also a number of gay couples and groups of gay men in the lobby. Show queens are an aging breed, but we're not extinct yet.
     Our audience loved every moment of the show. Thanks to all involved in gambling on Broadway success for the show. If I offered stars, SIDE SHOW would get five out of five. *****
SIDE SHOW. St. James Theatre. December 27, 2014.

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