In Side Show, the lump-in-the-throat act one closer, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” becomes more than a sad ballad emoting the heartbreaking circumstances of a pair of conjoined twins at the heart of the musical. The show-stopper becomes an anthem for anyone who has experienced a barrier—race, sexual orientation, even a simple lack of passion—that keeps them from getting the kind of love they deserve.
Side Show’s ability to take very specific, even strange characters and situations and make them universal and wholly relatable is one of the show’s many strengths. The musical begins in a carnival sideshow, where the twins Violet and Daisy Hilton are the star attraction among a stunning cornucopia of geeks, bearded ladies, and little people—a mix of stage hoaxes and individuals attempting to capitalize on their actual deformities. Slick producer Terry (Ryan Silverman) and performance coach Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) come on the scene with the promise of a better life—fame, freedom, maybe even love. But the world beyond the Side Show might not be as different and accepting as the twins are hoping.
Director Bill Condon’s (Chicago, Dreamgirls) visually stunning production is less abstract than the 1997 Broadway flop and cult favorite that preceded it. That show made its performers’ abnormalities more of an illusion; here, Paul Tazewell’s costumes show the sideshow “freaks” in all their glory: the crackling skin of the reptilian lizard man, the creepy, elongated features of the geek. This Side Show excels at making its audience confront their discomfort: It’s nearly impossible to avoid marveling at the performers even as it feels inherently wrong to do so.
The show is voyeuristic in other ways, too: Side Show’s songs are almost awkwardly emotive, giving real insight into the internal lives and struggles of the characters. Terry melodramatically spells out his discomfort with the idea of a relationship with Daisy in “A Private Conversation,”a soliloquy that essentially replaces the original production’s divisive but creative romantic scene, “Tunnel of Love.” The women’s handler, Jake (David St. Louis, giving a marvelous vocal performance), delivers a stirring confessional, “You Should Be Loved.” The love triangle (well, polygon) that eventually engulfs the characters of Side Show has some of the trappings of cinematic cliché, but the show’s (foreshadowed) revelations make it a more nuanced conflict than one might expect.
Side Show is almost entirely sung through, and given the fact that ten numbers have been added to the original piece, the show can feel a little song-stuffed. But it’s a minor complaint against this stellar production, which combines exceptional casting with an arresting set, accented by gorgeous, almost art-deco carnival-attraction posters, multi-level platforms, and rapid-fire costume changes. Even with all these enhancements, the success of Side Show rests on the shoulders of the twins at the center of it. Erin Davie (Violet) and Emily Padgett (Daisy) are more than up to the task—their chemistry seems effortless, and their voices soar through the complex harmonies of the score. The only irony of the casting is that the remarkable Davie, playing the more reserved Violet, arguably has even more stage presence than her vivacious counterpart.
Side Show is at the Kennedy Center through July 13. Running time is about two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($45 to $130) are available through Kennedy Center’s website.