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THEATER REVIEW: “Side Show” at La Jolla Playhouse

It takes a certain kind of person to want to stare at physical deformity of the kind commonly seen (or emulated) in circus sideshows.

Maybe that’s why in 1997, “Side Show” – the musical that tells the story of real-life conjoined twins (and sideshow stars) Daisy and Violet Hilton – closed on Broadway after a disappointing 92 performances. But that was enough to establish it as a cult favorite.

Book writer/lyricist Bill Russell (“Elegies for Angels”) and composer Henry Krieger (“Dreamgirls”) decided to rework it in 2007, and the result is on the boards through Dec. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre. A co-production with the Kennedy Center, the show is slated for a June 2014 opening in Washington, D.C.

Director Bill Condon, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of “Gods And Monsters” (and also adapted “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) estimates that this re-imagined version is 60% new, with four new songs and six rewritten or replaced ones. Some are cuts from the original show.

Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie) were born in 1908 in Brighton, England to an unwed barmaid who sold them to her employer, “Auntie” Mary Hilton (Blair Ross). Mary and her husband (Robert Joy), seeing money-making prospects in these girls joined at the hip and buttocks, taught them to sing and dance and put them in a sideshow, where they quickly become the main attraction. Mary insists the girls call her “Auntie” and her husband “Sir.”

In the sideshow, the African-American “Cannibal King” (David St. Louis) takes them under his wing (and falls for Violet).

Being attached doesn’t keep them from wanting to be “Like Everyone Else,” though their goals are dissimilar: while Daisy wants fame and “frenzied acclaim,” Violet wants to marry and settle down.

So when promoters Terry (Manoel Felciano) and Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) see in them the potential for vaudeville stardom, it doesn’t take much to persuade the girls to “Say Goodbye to the Side Show” and go off (especially because they have designs on Terry and Buddy). Jake tries to convince them that “the devil you know beats the devil you don’t,” but they will not be dissuaded. Finally Jake decides to go with them.

They become the highest-paid vaudeville performers in the country, but their romances do not work out and when a Hollywood director Tod Browning offers them a film deal, they jump in without looking. The film turns out to be the 1932 “Freaks,” a commercial flop, and their lives do not turn out as hoped.

“Side Show” boasts terrific stagecraft. David Rockwell’s movable set is complemented by Paul Tazewell’s terrific costumes and incredible special-effects makeup by Dave and Lou Elsey. (More about that here: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/nov/22/la-jolla-playhouse-side-show-...)

Kai Harada’s sound and the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer are top-notch.

Kudos also to choreographer Anthony Van Laast for his imaginative dance creations and to Greg Jarrett and his fine 10-member orchestra.

But it’s the cast that makes the show, and there are no disappointments here. Padgett and Davie are astonishing, looking very much alike and with complementary voices reflecting their characters’ very different personalities.

Likewise, Felciano and Hydzik are fine singers, dancers and actors who happen to look perhaps a little too much alike.

David St. Louis’s Jake rightly brings down the house in “The Devil You Know,” his rich, deep voice filling the rafters with beautiful sound, with acting and dancing abilities to match.

Joy is less threatening than disgusting as bad guy Sir, and the versatile ensemble keeps very busy changing costumes and makeup for their multiple roles.

But at heart, the Hiltons’ story is an extremely sad one of neglect, abuse and perfidy (not to mention fame and its all too frequently tragic aftermath). The “Side Show” version skims the emotional (and perhaps factual) surface but stuffs the show with inappropriate jaunty tunes that don’t adequately reflect the lives of these girls. At two and a half hours including intermission, it’s also too long.

I’m not sure this is a story for a musical. If it is, it needs another rewrite.

The details

“Side Show” plays through Dec. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.