Broadway has yet another new star from Hollywood, but this time he’s not an actor. Film director-writer Bill Condon makes his New York stage debut with a smashing revival of “Side Show,” which opened Monday at the St. James Theatre. Condon shows musical-theater veterans how it’s supposed to be done. Not that the track record for movie makers working on the musical stage has been a good one: Martin Scorsese famously crashed with “The Act,” and Gower Champion had to be brought in to save the Liza Minnelli show.
Condon’s success is a double triumph, actually. He has also retooled Bill Russell’s original book for “Side Show,” Condon being credited with “additional book material,” and brought much greater focus and emotional clarity to the story of conjoined twins, based on the real-life Hilton sisters, who went from a carnival “freak show” to being vaudeville’s highest paid stars in the 1920s.
In the new “Side Show,” the twins are more clearly the opposite sides of the same showbiz diva: Violet Hilton (Erin Davie) projects the vulnerable persona that audiences adore, meanwhile Daisy Hilton (Emily Padgett) has the grit necessary to make it to the top. The twins’ three love interests — three, count ‘em — are now more obvious in their motivations. For those who know the 1997 production, it’s best not to know the new twists in character, which won’t be disclosed here. But Condon achieves something that David Thompson’s book for “The Scottsboro Boys,” another backstage story of discrimination, does not: Condon makes us complicit in that discrimination. David St. Louis’ strong voice turns Jake’s “You Should Be Loved” into a heart-rending showstopper. Matthew Hydzik’s agreeable Buddy withholds his own secret of lowly outsider status. The most significant change, however, effects the twins’ handler Terry, played with caddish charm by Ryan Silverman. He harbors an ultimate dream, something that almost every theatergoer will also want for these two women. Yet, in the end, Daisy and Violet reject that goal.
Back in 1998, the Tonys nominated the two actors playing Daisy and Violet, but gave them only one nomination to share. It’s a credit to Condon, Davie, and Padgett that the Tonys probably won’t repeat that mistake; these are two utterly different, equally riveting performances, and Davie and Padgett take divergent paths to win our empathy.
Condon pulls off another master stroke that intensifies our identification and desire. The 1997 production took a bare-bones “Elephant Man” approach to depict the side-show attractions, from the lizard man to the geek, leaving the audience to use its imagination. Condon’s extensive design team (Paul Tazewell, Dave Elsey, Lou Elsey, Charles G. LaPointe, Cookie Jordan) gives full reality to those unique looks. We are meant to see them as freaks, the Hilton twins included. Later in the show, however, Condon radically ups Daisy and Violet’s glam quotient: They’re beautiful and sexy, they’re stars and we, too, like Terry and Buddy, learn to desire them. It’s a Cinderella story, but with more than one twist to come.
Kudos also go to set designer David Rockwell and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer who create a world that goes from tacky to deco to expressionistic.
Condon has borrowed a few concepts — a flashback to the twins’ Dickensian upbringing recalls “Sweeney Todd,” a musical number projecting their three-way sex life if one of them marries owes much to the Loveland sequence from “Follies” — but he has borrowed from the best.
Henry Krieger’s songs, a few of them new, never sounded this good. The new arrangements (Sam Davis) and orchestrations (Harold Wheeler) eschew the 1997 soft-rock sound, which jarred with the Tin Pan Alley pastiche. Gone also is much of the recitative, which, as Stephen Sondheim once put it, can have the effect of molasses poured over a score. Krieger’s plaintive melodies now have their own space in which to shimmer. Not fixed, unfortunately, are some of Russell’s more pedestrian lyrics, which bring ordinary rhymes to some very extraordinary emotions.
But those looking for perfection in the arts should stay home and read Yeats. “Side Show” now takes its place in the pantheon of great American musicals.