Side Show is a musical based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who as children and young women worked in carnival side shows, then appeared in vaudeville and even in a few movies including the Tod Browning horror classic Freaks. Lyricist-librettist Bill Russell, composer Henry Kreiger, and director-choreographer Robert Longbottom have crafted from this true story an original musical that is a genuine work of theatrical art. Honest: Side Show has one of the finest scores to reach Broadway in years; it is a work of dazzling showmanship whose first act alone has something like four or five showstopping numbers; it is an eloquent plea for tolerance and acceptance; it is an intense, deeply-felt story about persons who are "different" that, finally, packs an emotional wallop the likes of which I can't recall feeling in the theatre in quite some time.
Side Show begins with its 22 cast members seated on bleachers, facing the audience and looking very much like them (that is to say, "normal"). They sing the show's rousing anthem "Come Look at the Freaks," telling about, but not showing, a geek, a reptile man, a bearded lady, a pair of siamese twins. And then, we come into the tent; the freak show begins (a dazzlingly menacing setpiece, brilliantly staged by Longbottom). In short order we meet this community of outcasts, and we are charmed in particular by the lovely Hilton sisters, two young blonde women joined at the hip but otherwise fairly unremarkable. Soon a promoter named Terry Connor proposes to take the girls out of the sideshow and into vaudeville. Some of their fellow freaks look upon this as a godsend while others view it as an invitation from the devil (in a wonderful gospel number called "The Devil You Know"). Daisy and Violet decide to go with Connor, and the rest of Act One depicts their rise to stardom in vaudeville, very much a la classic American musicals about show business like Gypsy and Dreamgirls. Indeed, "We Share Everything," the stylish Egyptian-flavored number that marks the sisters' ascension to celebrity, combines the energetic pastiche of "Let Me Entertain You" with the exuberant catharsis of "Dreamgirls" (the title song); it's a joyous and magical number, and it stops the show.
Act One ends with a song called "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" The title speaks for itself, and it anticipates Side Show's sadder, more personal second act, which focuses on Daisy and Violet's attempts to find something approaching a normal romantic life. I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that these attempts don't finally turn out happily. I'm not going to tell you what happens but I will say this: the ending is utterly devastating. The show's final image is powerful and disturbing and hard to shake. Yet the final message is uplifting: this is a musical that concludes that the real freaks are those who can't, or won't, look beyond superficial differences and accept others as they are. Side Show is played out exclusively in public spaces and that's no accident: Daisy and Violet's condition forces them to publicly display what most of us can hide. But they're just like us, you see: "We want what everyone wants," they tell us in their first song, and of course that's exactly the point.
I've already told you that Henry Kreiger and Bill Russell's score is magnificent. Let me add now that the show's design--Robin Wagner's sets, Brian MacDevitt's lighting, and especially Gregg Barnes' stunning costumes--perfectly realizes the authors' intentions. Robert Longbottom's staging and choreography are likewise exactly right, loaded with neat details that speak volumes. As for the cast, well, they are superb. Ken Jennings and Norm Lewis are standouts among the featured players as, respectively, the sideshow boss and Jake, the onetime "Cannibal King" who becomes the girls' closest friend. Hugh Panaro is touching as Buddy Foster, the vaudevillian who falls in love with Violet, and Jeff McCarthy is masterful as the conflicted Terry Connor. Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, who play Daisy and Violet, are incredible: standing hip to hip they move and behave as Siamese twins would, which is astonishing enough logistically but is all the more an achievement because of the emotional truth of their performance. Somebody tell the Tony Awards folks to make sure they bestow a double nomination on these two talented women.
How gratifying that we already have, so early in the season, such a terrific new musical on Broadway. Side Show will dazzle you and thrill you. Go see it.