The musical theater, once in center ring of American culture, is increasingly a side show. "Side Show," for all its talent and intelligence, is a perfect example. Earnest, visually arresting but hollow, it is a musical for musical-theater enthusiasts.
Aficionados can look at Henry Krieger's show about Siamese twins who become stars during the Depression and note the parallels with his "Dream Girls."
Like that 1981 musical, "Side Show" is about women in showbiz, their search for love and how they are victimized by the men who manage them.
As in the earlier show, much of the drama takes place amid Robin Wagner's movable scenery. In "Dream Girls,"glistening pillars moved eerily around the stage. In "Side Show," it is bleachers constantly being reconfigured by roustabouts.
In both cases, the music is essentially rhythm and blues, which made more sense for a story based on The Supremes than it does for a story set in the Depression.
Except for Gregg Barnes' delectable costumes, very little gives any of the flavor of the time. What might have added poignancy and grit has been eliminated.
A show about Siamese twins should convey some of the pain of their physical reality. Alas, here everything is reduced to show-biz cliches, as if the only reality that matters is the pain of celebrity.
There are, of course, some underlying metaphors intended to make the story universal. The same actors who play the freaks in the carnival where the twins are discovered later play high-society types. When a la-de-da socialite asks a twin, "Don't you want to be normal?" the twin replies, "Whoever you are, don't you?"
Only slightly subtler is the show's plea that people not treat one another like freaks. At the end of the first act,the entire company faces the audience and sings, with anthemlike solemnity, "Who will proudly stand beside me?/ Who will love me as I am?" Does anyone need for this to be explained? Hint the key word is proudly.
The weakest thing about the show is Bill Russell's book and lyrics, which almost never rise above the obvious. Krieger's music has a rhythmic monotony; much of it is singsong recitative. At times the insistent beat does pay off, as in the "Tunnel of Love" number, which builds and builds and which is the show's visual high point Wagner gives the stage an electronic pinball machine dazzle.
Robert Longbottom has staged and choreographed the show efficiently. With Brian MacDevitt's lighting, he has created some arresting stage pictures. But he has not succeeded in giving the material any emotional impact.
As the twins, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner are marvelous at creating two distinct personalities. Hugh Panaro's great looks enhance the shallowness of Buddy, who may or may not be in love with a sister. His rich voice is one of the show's best assets. Jeff McCarthy's hunted look underlines the opportunism of his character. Norm Lewis sings powerfully as their loyal black friend, and Ken Jennings is properly sinister as their original "owner."
If only the material gave them all greater challenges!
Do you want to see a Broadway musical about Siamese twins? Don't answer too quickly; you didn't think you wanted to see a musical about a sinking ship, did you?
And this Siamese twins opus - a strange, bright and moving musical noir called "Side Show," which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater - has a dramatic poignancy and urgency, even a certain refreshingly unsentimental honesty, that demands an attention way beyond the bizarrely voyeuristic.
But that - legitimately enough - comes into it. There is that dark side to human nature dangerously interested in the unnatural.
Indeed, one of the most freakish aspects of humanity is its occasional obsession with freaks. Certain generations in particular seem to find something morbidly fascinating – even obscenely fascinating - about the grotesque.
Shakespeare put it perfectly: "When they won't give a doit to help a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." It appears to have been very much like that between the wars, during the Depression, when traveling shows crisscrossed the world, exhibiting freaks.
And few freaks were more sought after than genuine Siamese twins - particularly if, like the Hilton sisters, they had a little exploitable talent. This talent took the Hiltons from England to America, the vaudeville circuit and eventually, briefly, to Hollywood.
This true story of the Hilton twins was inspired by a movie made in 1932 called "Freaks." Robert Longbottom, the director and choreographer of "Side Show," saw "Freaks" and persuaded his friend Bill Russell to prepare a treatment. They contacted Henry ("Dreamgirls") Krieger, who agreed to write the music.
Although Russell's book and lyrics are obviously fictionalized, they stay very close to what must have been the inner truth, triumph and heartbreak of these two odd little creatures of circumstance.
Krieger obviously saw the story as a sort of stepdaughter to "Dreamgirls," and his score has all of the same unmemorable virtues and mild failings of the earlier piece.
In moments of stress, the music tends to equate emotion with volume, but it is never unpleasant, and never gets in the way of the storytelling.
"Side Show" takes the sisters - picked up by a pair of smooth (but not too smooth) operators from a crude sideshow - through a show-business career, a fake marriage and to the brink of that movie.
The two sisters are neatly characterized: Daisy (Emily Skinner) flowers, while Violet (Alice Ripley) shrinks. But although both have to settle for fame and unduly close sorority rather than true love, it is Violet who gets the well-publicized apology of a marriage.
From the first, almost Brechtian scene - set, as is most of this oddly domesticated musical, on the versatile bleachers that make up much of Robin Wagner's ingenious settings - where an angry little Boss (a brilliant Ken Jennings) invites us all to "Come look at the freaks," the show completely holds interest.
Longbottom's staging is swift, and the performances, including the ensemble, are beautifully judged and presented. Ripley and Skinner look as though they really are joined at the hip, and their handsomely sung portrayals prove true and touching.
The three men in their lives - the half-crooked entrepreneur Terry; his flaky sidekick, Buddy; and the twins' special protector, Jake - are most intelligently played by Jeff McCarthy, Hugh Panaro and Norm Lewis. And the whole production - particularly the actors, cleverly dressed by Gregg Barnes - gleams darkly, interestingly and attractively.
This should provide a rousing blast-off for the Broadway season. It's a "Side Show" not to pass by.
It's something to marvel at, all right, that strange connection between otherwise separate human beings. It is what's being so improbably celebrated in ''Side Show,'' the new musical about the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. No, not the ligature of flesh that joins the heroines of this daring, enthralling production, although as played by Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, they set a new standard for crackerjack Broadway teamwork.
Actually, the more extraordinary point of connection presented by the show, which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater, is the emotional link that grafts the Hilton sisters onto the hearts of their audience. ''Come Look at the Freaks'' may be the title of the brash, invitational number that opens ''Side Show.'' But the work's composer, Henry Krieger, and its lyricist and book writer, Bill Russell, are demanding that you do much more than gape. In following the rise to fame of the Hiltons, inspired by the real-life sisters best known today for their appearance in Tod Browning's disturbing cult movie, ''Freaks'' (1932), the show asks that you find yourselves in the two women, who are torn by conflicts both within and between them.
The request is made with passion, empathy and directness, reflected in the tidal pull of Mr. Krieger's music and the winning simplicity of Mr. Russell's lyrics. ''Side Show,'' which has been directed with stylish confidence by Robert Longbottom, has its flaws, for sure. But a lack of heart-felt conviction is not among them.
Mind you, this musical seems guaranteed to divide its audience into violent tribes of admirers and detractors. Like its irrevocably joined leading ladies, it cannot be taken apart without destroying its spirit. In many ways, it's a compilation of the cliches of every show business success weeper.
Subtract half of its two central characters, and its basic plot groans with familiarity: a young woman of raw talent from the margins of society is discovered, refined and taken on a meteor ride to fame only to learn, when she reaches the top, that there is no one to love her for herself.
Yet sometimes just one turn of the screw can push the seemingly stale into realms of unsettling revelation. The very presence in ''Side Show'' of two women who are so glaringly abnormal in appearance yet so commonplace in their desires sets off chains of reverberation that bring depth as well as novelty to old questions: about identity, aloneness, ambivalence and the distorting, isolating powers of fame.
In the 1978 book ''Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self,'' Leslie Fiedler wrote of the potent, uneasy hold of Siamese twins on the popular imagination: ''The distinction between audience and exhibit, we and them, normal and Freak, is revealed as an illusion.'' As Mr. Fiedler points out, they somehow draw us into a complicity, evoking primal guilts and worries about a mutant, shadow self within.
The creators of ''Side Show'' play on these fears with canny restraint. Mr. Longbottom's poetic staging includes stark, dreamlike images in which the twins are seen as separate individuals, gazing into each other's eyes. Yet Mr. Russell's book and lyrics refrain from elaborate psychologizing and spelled-out symbolism.
True, the barker (Ken Jennings) who runs the carnival show in which the twins are discovered calls out in the musical's opening number, ''Come explore why they fascinate you, exasperate you and flush your cheeks.'' But the terms of that exploration are left to the audience to devise.
In fact, ''Side Show'' is deliberately conventional in the sentiments it gives to the adventuresome, ambitious Daisy (Ms. Skinner) and the quieter, more domestic Violet (Ms. Ripley). When they leave their traveling family of fellow freaks to join the vaudeville circuit, in a brazenly sentimental song called ''Say Goodbye to the Freak Show,'' the number is most remarkable for its universality: it implicity addresses our memories of family as a band of outsiders and the terrors of first leaving it.
Correspondingly, Ms. Ripley and Ms. Skinner both give off a luminous normality. With their shiny blond hair and clean-cut but luscious features, they become the ideal 1930's girls next door. It's a feeling compounded by their songs, which have generic titles like ''Feelings You've Got to Hide'' and ''Who Will Love Me as I Am?''
They are, finally, ordinary young women trapped in an extraordinary bondage. The combination gives a heightened sense to everyday concerns, with tremendously moving results. Although ''Side Show'' has its expected share of flashy performance numbers, it is by far strongest when it focuses cleanly on the simple souls at its center.
Mr. Longbottom's impeccably synchronized dancing for Ms. Ripley and Ms. Skinner, which miraculously avoids cheap camp, is beyond fault in the period-piece routines. But the vaudeville and follies pastiches lack the wit in the choreography of, say, Michael Bennett for ''Follies'' or Bob Fosse for ''Chicago.''
This is partly because irony is what usually give such numbers their spark these days. And the strong suit of ''Side Show'' is sincerity, not irony. Also, more surprisingly, austerity. The production is most resonant at its most stripped down.
Robin Wagner's masterly set, enriched by Brian MacDevitt's lighting, makes an eloquent case for understatement in big musicals. Its central element is a set of bleachers that are reconfigured throughout the show and are seen by the audience upon entering the theater. Thus the line between the observer and the observed is immediately blurred. And the opening number, in which the members of the freak show take their places wearing only impassive expressions and somber street clothes, is a quiet stunner.
Summoned into animation by Mr. Jennings's tyrannical barker, the performers deftly assume postures to evoke their particular callings: geek, fat lady, cannibal king. The number is a comment, of course, on the transformational alchemy of theater but more pertinently a reminder of the slender line between the normal and the abnormal. The perceptual frame of the entire show is beautifully established here. And when the performers return, in full ''freak'' regalia, it's actually an anticlimax.
Mr. Krieger's music begins in a portentous vein, suggesting a hybrid of ''Sweeney Todd'' and the eerie, ethereal chords of Angelo Badalamenti. What's remarkable is how the rest of the score, which assumes forms ranging from saucy gospel to rock-flavored ballads (and has been splendidly orchestrated by Harold Wheeler), seems to develop organically from this somber opening.
The songs of ''Side Show'' -- and it is almost entirely sung -- spin out of each other with agility and a beautifully sustained momentum. The sung recitative never seems awkward, and there are lovely musical character motifs throughout, most touchingly, the melodies given to the twins' repeated introductions of themselves.
As he demonstrated in ''Dreamgirls,'' which has just been revived in a Broadway-bound national tour, Mr. Krieger can pay affectionate homage to the stirring show-business anthem, whose every note seems to breathe giddy ambition, while suggesting elements of conflict within it. And while the second act, the less integrated of the two, is overloaded with throat-taxing considerations of love and prejudice as the twins entertain hopes of marriage, the driving emotionalism of the music keeps you hooked.
The complexity of the score is nearly always matched by the performers singing it. Mr. Jennings is the most arrestingly demonic master of ceremonies since Joel Grey in ''Cabaret,'' while Norm Lewis, as the black carnival worker whose love for Violet raises issues the show never fully deals with, brings an engagingly reserved strength to his big solos.
Hugh Panaro and Jeff McCarthy are the men from the land of legitimate show biz who discover and later court the twins. And while Mr. Panaro's character never acquires much heft, Mr. McCarthy is splendid in finding, through vocal nuance, the shades of ambivalence in the slick entrepreneur who turns out to be far more complicated than just a cad.
Then there are Ms. Ripley and Ms. Skinner, who are simply astonishing. Their characters could so easily have become tiresome walking metaphors for the divided self or, worse, a grotesque joke. Yet their Violet and Daisy, while nearly identical in appearance, emerge as autonomous, fully defined individuals who have made a science of moving as one person. There is something infinitely touching about the contrasting sets of their heads, of their expressions as they navigate the show's obstacle course of love and fame.
These are two richly realized performances. Yet you can't imagine them having the same affecting strength apart. While this may pose an entirely new problem for the Tony nominating committee, the combination here is indeed more than the sum of its parts. The same can be said of the entire show.
Boy meets girl squared in "Side Show," a surprisingly conventional showbiz musical with only one twist: The song-and-dance partners can't break up the act.
Double on everything but plot, "Side Show" is a behind-the-curtain peek at the Hilton Sisters, "Siamese" twins who became vaudeville stars and media sensations of the 1920s and '30s. Two terrific lead actresses, two turbulent love stories, two heartbreaks and one pleasant, very mainstream score add up to a story that ultimately falls too short of its potential.
With actresses Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley standing, sitting and occasionally dancing side by side virtually throughout the show's two hours and 40 minutes, "Side Show" simply and effectively overcomes the obvious theatrical challenge of depicting what is politely referred to by other characters as the twins' "condition."
Despite a respectful, compassionate tone, the creative team (book writer and lyricist Bill Russell, composer Henry Krieger and director Robert Longbottom) lighten the saga with occasionally irreverent humor (one of the score's sisterly duets is titled "Leave Me Alone").
Beginning with the requisite step-right-up opening number that quickly introduces the members of a carnival freak show (a reptile man, bearded lady, chicken-biting geek, etc.), "Side Show" charts the rise to stardom of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins and primary attraction of the second-rate circus.
Pretty, charming and with at least a modicum of singing talent, the sisters are discovered by a fledgling songwriter (Hugh Panaro) and a vaudeville scout (Jeff McCarthy). Over the objections of the cruel carnival boss (Ken Jennings) and the protective, loving family of freaks, the sisters leave the relatively safe confines of the midway for a shot at showbiz stardom.
And they find it, soon becoming popular attractions of the vaudeville circuit and stars of a Ziegfeld-like follies show. The starry-eyed, ambitious Daisy (Skinner) particularly enjoys the attention, while the more serious Violet (Ripley) yearns for love and domestic stability.
In a development that could be a parody of the everyone-finds-love conventions of romantic comedy, Daisy falls for the talent scout while Violet pairs up with the handsome songwriter (who, after proposing marriage to Violet, asks the scout in gee-whiz style, "Say, why don't you marry Daisy?").
Ultimately, only one sister will marry (in a wedding staged, as in real life, for publicity purposes), and neither will find true love and happiness. "Side Show" leaves the Hiltons wiser, sadder and more unified than ever, their soaring ballad "I Will Never Leave You" ending the tuner as the sisters prepare to go Hollywood with a starring role in Tod Browning's "Freaks."
The sisters' bumpy ride to infamy and disillusion would seem to offer plenty of plot options, yet surprisingly little actually happens in "Side Show," with the long first act accomplishing little more than setting up the romantic quadrangle and the second act bogged down by overwrought solos.
Most disappointing, the intriguing milieu of the freak show is an opportunity lost, the authors having taken the easy, politically correct route by presenting the safest, most tolerant bunch of carnies imaginable (exotic acts are emphasized over physical deformity, and the misfits' open-minded solidarity extends to the obvious, if unspoken, gay pairing of a muscleman and a fakir).
Aside from the twins, the only "freak" given prominence in "Side Show" is Jake (well played by Norm Lewis), billed as a captured cannibal king but actually the intelligent, sensitive protector of the sisters.
Jake's love for Violet might draw unflattering comparisons to a nearly identical situation depicted in last season's darker Off Broadway musical "Violet" (no relation to the Hilton sister). But in "Violet," the difficult issues surrounding a black man's love for an outcast (and physically marred) white woman were tackled in an edgy, more brooding (and arguably more successful) approach: "Side Show," by comparison, is surprisingly convention-bound, its tone more "Gypsy" than "Elephant Man."
However effectively crafted and enthusiastically performed, the score often comes across as too calculated in its crowd pleasing, touching all bases from the de rigueur gospel ensemble number ("The Devil You Know") to ballads that could be inserted into any romantic musical ("Why do I feel like I swallowed a butterfly?" one love-struck twin sings in "Feelings You've Got to Hide").
That said, "Side Show" does beat the odds in at least a few ways. Robin Wagner's unelaborate carnival sets and Gregg Barnes' attractive costumes set the right mood, and if the musical doesn't take full advantage of history, neither does it devolve into camp (if ever a musical was ripe for "Forbidden Broadway" satire, this is it).
The sudden arrival of Hollywood director Browning at the musical's end is probably as necessary as it is silly, and there's only one out-and-out groaner of a song (the unintentionally kitschy, and unfortunately pivotal, "Tunnel of Love," in which the romantic foursome reveals inner thoughts and passions during a carnival ride).
And the story's most obvious challenge --- how to depict the twins themselves --- seems to have been the most easily surmounted. Director-choreographer Longbottom's side-by-side approach, though inherently a bit static, generally works fine, with the wonderfully talented Ripley and Skinner moving in perfect sync while etching distinctly individual personalities.
The musical, however, would be better served if it gave Ripley and Skinner something (or someone) to play against. Panaro, as the hunky songwriter whose intentions are stronger than his character, and McCarthy, as the talent scout whose love can't overcome his misgivings, do as well as can be expected in roles marked by the same ambivalence of purpose that keeps "Side Show" from hitting the big time.
As the sisters head off to Hollywood, they inspire the same pity they drew in the freak show, making this journey little more than a sad, nicely sung curiosity.