All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Side Show — Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.

untitled (65)Bill Condon’s additions and adaptations to the cult-followed 1997 musical, “Side Show,” have differing effects as Condon endows Bill Russell’s original book with more musical glitter, makes the owner of the side show more integral, oily and sinister, reveals more biographical information about the show’s lead characters, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, emphasizes a medical solution for the sisters’ plight, and aims for harder, seamier reality while undercutting the musical’s main romantic thread by inculcating a current theater fashion, a gay presence, and never eking genuine texture from scenes involving abandonment, guardianship, surgical options, and legal entanglements.

Condon’s new production of “Side Show,” which he directed for stagings in La Jolla and D.C., is richer and more satisfying than Robert Longbottom’s original mounting. Several new musical numbers enliven the show and draw you closer to the Hilton Sisters and the savvy they may have had as vaudeville entertainers (but doesn’t register in some of the extant films in which they appeared). As my friend, Laurel Flint, said at the start of one sequence, “Look, she has boys,” a reference to Chicago’s Roxie Hart who fantasizes doing a nightclub number with male chorus cuties. In Condon’s “Side Show,” Daisy and Violet fulfill Roxie’s wish. In addition to giving more musical ‘zazz to “Side Show,” songs like “Typical Girls Next Door,” “Ready to Play,” and even the mildly insulting “Stuck With You” are wittier, more true to the period, more commentating, and better in entertainment value than “When I’m By Your Side” and other numbers they replace. The new material provides a vision of Daisy and Violet as stars and demonstrates one of the show’s ongoing points, that they had the talent and appeal to be more than a novelty act.

Of course, reality of the sisters’ situation is they are a novelty. The interest in audiences seeing them, whether at a side show, in a vaudeville theater, on screen, or even as magnificently played by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett at D.C.’s Kennedy Center, has to do with the women being conjoined twins — “I’m Daisy. I’m Violet. We’re not Siamese.” — as much as anything the Hiltons accomplished as entertainers. Condon, Russell, or composer Henry Krieger did not, after all, write about a random sister act out of the thousands that played from Seattle to Palm Beach. They wrote about the Hilton Sisters, whose success and show business gifts they may have rightfully exaggerated for their purpose.

While “Side Show” makes it chillingly plain that Daisy and Violet, for all of their achievement and notoriety, are, in the end, regarded primarily as “freaks,” and though Davie and Padgett play their characters winningly, with the poise and sweetness of girls next door, Condon has not managed to correct the piece’s fatal flaw. With all of his inclusion of melodrama and backstory, he does not bring “Side Show” to a place where it touches the heart. The Kennedy Center production is, at times, affecting and it is continually entertaining, but it doesn’t yet makes your soul ache for the ordeals and disappointments of the Hilton Sisters.

Condon’s production can soar with moments of triumph, as when Daisy and Violet live up to a new manager and sensitive choreographer’s ambitions for them, but it leaves sad sequences matter-of-fact. The realization that one romance will end is moving but not shattering, the pragmatism that prevents another romance from developing (especially with the cutting of the 1997 “Tunnel of Love” number) is coldly informative but not sympathy-inspiring, and a blatant, if literal, single-word utterance from movie director Tod Browning may elicit gasps but is not crushing. Somehow, sequences that seem to be leading to intense emotional impact don’t land the big roundhouse to the solar plexus “Side Show” needs — no, cries for — to make the leap from smart, satisfying, and entertaining to unbearably sad and unforgettably heart-rending.

In 1997, I credited this resistance to going for the emotional throat to the diamond-hard cynicism of the times, happy and prosperous in terms of the national temperament and a bullish stock market, but analytically oriented and emotionally removed from passion or empathy. Another new musical, Kander and Ebb’s “Steel Pier,” was respected but diminished, I thought, but the same lack of human feeling, a kind of resistance towards sensitivity of its subjects, a preference for exposing the tough and the tawdry over the sentimentality each person feels toward his or her ideal self or individual ordeals. The revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” and “Cabaret” reinforced my observation as did acclaimed plays like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “Sideman.”

In the mid-teens of the 21st century, i.e. now, I expected more compassion and warmth, knowing it would have to be contrasted with stark reality and, therefore, become more lamentably woeful and affecting. “Side Show” is essentially about two women, born into an unusual, uncorrectable situation but who have the sensibility and desire to be individual. The women accept their predicament with grace and make a name for themselves in a difficult business, but in the end, their difference, the novelty is always foremost, always the overriding factor in every aspect of their lives. How can it not be? That’s what “Side Show” attempts to answer, coming to the necessary and historical conclusion that yes, the Hiltons will always be Siamese twins whatever they do, whatever talent they display, and however they comport themselves as bright, observant women with the emotions and ambitions we all have. “Side Show” is about people we today call “special” who want, more than anything, to be average. The Hilton sisters would prefer to be like Laura Wingfield’s unicorn once The Gentleman Caller inadvertently breaks off its horn and it, as Laura says, becomes just another in the herd. The truth in “Side Show” is that such a circumstance is impossible, or refused, setting a course for conflict, melodrama, and empathy, a course that is never completely taken at Kennedy Center.

Though Condon, with the help of a remarkable cast and shrewd work by choreographer Anthony Van Laast, succeeds in presenting a strong, solid show, full of interesting moments, sparkling exchanges, genuinely bizarre (bazaar?) atmosphere, amusing musical numbers, and on-the-mark acting, he misses the ultimate gold ring that would come from making his production unavoidably heartbreaking, especially because of the optimism and sense of peaceful resignation Daisy and Violet convey at the end of the show.

Yes, the act-ending numbers, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” have their intended emotional heft. Davie and Padgett are a laudable pair, meticulously synchronized and in mutual concert in everything as they do as Violet and Daisy. But Condon’s production goes only so far then veers away from the knockout punch, even when Davie, as a disillusioned Violet, or Padgett, as a bravely resigned Daisy, seems on the brink of delivering it.

I smell future life for Condon’s work. I encourage the adapter-director, Van Laast, Davie, Padgett, and all to continue working on “Side Show” and to bring it to Broadway with the extra element it needs, those one or four surges of searing emotion. If that happens, I predict a hit, a hit, a palpable hit, “Side Show redeemed and given a status beyond “cult favorite,” a status it has the ingredients and the intention to earn.

untitled (67)“Side Show” begins in Texas, where a seedy impresario Condon, through actor Robert Joy, paints as a 20th century Fagin in Alfred P. Doolittle’s accent and clothing, has assembled a collection of the misshapen, disfigured, malformed, and stunted and mixed them with other people willing to play unusual types, like a genuine African cannibal, he puts on display as a side show. Extra revenue is generated by letting the truly curious touch or have their way with one of the specimens the carnival owner calls freaks.

Among the show’s attractions is the star act, a pair of conjoined twins who sing and, for a fee, expose the area by their hips where they are joined. Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in England and landed in Texas in the care of the impresario everyone calls Sir, a difference from the 1997 “Side Show” in which the owner is called Boss and has no personal connection to the Hiltons except as his show’s headliners.

The Hilton sisters become the focus of “Side Show” but not until the audience gets a close look at other denizens of Sir’s carnival, ranging from a three-legged man to a half-man, half-woman with a fortune teller and bearded lady thrown in for good measure. Many of the unusual traits we see are done with make-up and are meant to fool the people who pay to see Sir’s show, drawn in by his call to “Come Look at the Freaks.” The Hiltons and a few others are genuinely different. As Terry Connor, the talent agent who spots the Hiltons in the Texas backwater and realizes their potential on the Orpheum circuit, says, the sisters are “unique.”

Robert Joy seems to revel in the dingy chicanery and barnlike conditions with which he runs his show. Connor, played with suave straightforwardness by Ryan Silverman, is more attuned to the glamor of top-flight vaudeville and sees the Hiltons as a way to get back in the graces of the primary producers and bookers.

Sir, who has supported, and exploited, the Hiltons for most of their lives may not see the effect Daisy and Violet have on the crowd, but Connor, who is trained to notice such reactions, immediately picks out that Daisy plays naturally to the crowd and that she catches their eye as more than a freak or a novelty.

Daisy is the Hilton sister who longs for the limelight and believes she and Violet, linked though they are, can have a career on the stage and, more importantly, in a relatively new entertainment form, the movies. Violet has domestic leanings and expresses a desire to have a normal life in a small town. She wants a decent husband, lots of children, and a nice home to shelter the lot — and Daisy — while she bakes and takes care of everyone. The sisters sing about their individual wishes in a song called “Like Everyone Else.”

Connor paints a bright picture of a prosperous stage career. The Hiltons’ friends in the side show, particularly Violet’s personal protector, Jake, warn them against leaving a secure job during the Depression and attempt to persuade them to remain with Sir in a number called “The Devil You Know.” This sequence is among several in which the Kennedy Center audience will feel the presence and see the power of David St. Louis as Jake, the alleged cannibal who is in love with Violet and who is hired by Terry to tend to the Hiltons as they create show business history. Van Laast and Condon also make “The Devil You Know” quite spectacular with their choreography and staging.

The next section of Condon’s production varies greatly from Longbottom’s original staging. Sir has a proprietary interest in Violet and Daisy. He has been given legal guardianship over them by the woman who took them from their mother and who made money exhibiting the conjoined children in the window of her London shop. Sir finds a different, more lucrative way of displaying them and doesn’t want to lose his meal ticket. The Hiltons, backed by Terry, have to sue Sir to establish their freedom as adults.

This new material, the emergence of Sir as more than a tyrant over the malformed and misfit, as someone who has a background with Daisy and Violet dating back to their youth in England and a possessive attitude towards them, both as a surrogate father and as one who needs the sisters as a meal ticket, should give depth and texture to the musical. So should the flashback to the woman who exhibited the girls as children, a guardian they called Auntie, and a scene of the trial where the Hiltons’ majority and liberty as adults is decided. But they don’t. They play as routine and cold. The scenes move too fast to engage full or intense interest, and the dramatic tone of them is dull and matter-of-fact. The scenes need more focus, more moments that grab. For now, they provide information you want but that has no dramatic force. The sequence look more like an interruption, a diversion, rather than an integral part of the musical.

It looks as if Condon has resorted to playwriting by the numbers. He provides information that satisfies curiosity that went a-begging in 1997, but he doesn’t create a real sense of danger of suspense. The passages with Auntie exploiting and Sir complaining and the judge ruling play like set pieces. Unlike Daisy, they do not attract the audience. They fall flat and smack of de rigueur exposition instead of a depiction of vital segments in the Hilton sisters’ lives and fortunes. For all the new scenes fill us in, they don’t add to the mood or depth of the production. They’re just blandly related backstory that doesn’t increase your interest, affection, or protective feeling towards Violet and Daisy. They don’t even make you fear for the sisters’ future.

That surprised me. I thought the original script for “Side Show” lacked salient information that, if known, would cleave us to the twins and make them even more dear and important to us than their place as focal figures in a musical does. Since most of Condon’s additions were accurate, or close enough to true to make the Hiltons’ history plain and elicit extra empathy for them, I’d have expected them to have a more touching, more unnerving impact than they do.

I found the new scenes interesting but not fascinating or especially affecting. In a crucial way, they illustrate what it wrong with the basic structure of “Side Show” as a dramatic work.

Everything that happens is exactly what you expect will happen in the exact way you expect it to happen. “Side Show” works by a formula. In the first act, a lot occurs to keep you going. You see the carnival performers in all of their strangeness and, in some cases, their offstage normality. You witness the Hiltons being exploited, hear they think they are lucky to have a secure place to live among friends, and see them being rescued by Terry, who also intends to exploit them but in a more gentle way that will let Daisy and Violet share in the lavishness and give them hope they may realize their separate and mutual dreams.

You see Sir’s sleaziness and Auntie’s manipulations. You watch the Hiltons fight for their independence and get it. You also hear some wonderful songs, some of which, such as “Feelings You’ve Got to Hide,” provide the drama and tangible feeling that is absent from most of the show.

untitled (66)I would say Condon’s effort is admirable. I enjoyed watching it. I was engaged. The new musical numbers entertained and amused with style. But even when Davie and Padgett deliver their beautifully sung and heartfelt rendition of the first act closer, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” my emotions had yet to be triggered. I, who shamefully tear at the slightest provocation, was dry-eyed. I was impressed. I was enjoying myself. I thought the new material was a definite improvement over the 1997 text. But while I cared for and about Violet and Daisy and wanted them to find the happiness and fulfillment that would be so open to women able to lead individual lives, my response was intellectual and keyed more to my sense of fun and admiration for fine theatrical craftsmanship than to any feelings “Side Show” had fomented.

I was just not moved.

The second act has more promise. Daisy and Violet have risen to be featured headliners on the Orpheum circuit. They are playing the best theaters in the biggest cities. People come to gawk at them, and they still have to tactfully sing, “I’m Daisy, I’m Violet, We’re not Siamese” to people who ask which is which and obvious questions about the predicament of being conjoined. A romance blossoms, and wedding plans are made. For all that happens, the second act’s potential doesn’t vault “Side Show” to new heights. The structure remains formulaic. You can almost sense Condon and Russell charting the Hiltons’ course, marking off conflict by the yard and making their plot twists interesting and diverting but never really triumphant, intense, or heartbreaking enough. We see the puppeteers’ strings too clearly.

The bulk of the second act revolves around Violet’s engagement and impending marriage to Buddy Foster, the choreographer who has made the Hiltons’ dance routines so sensational and who taught the sisters how to use their voices effectively.

The hubbub around the wedding, which Terry values most for the publicity it will generate, occupies a lot of time. Issues involving marriage, privacy, the ability to remain in show business, and Daisy’s feelings about seeing her sister wooed, wed, and content while she continues to pine for both stardom and a valentine, provide Condon and Russell ample fodder to craft a cluster of dramatic moments.

And they do. Some of them even muster the emotion that has been missing for most of the production. Most of them follow the production’s pattern and captivate audience interest while not tugging at the heart.

This is one section of “Side Show” in which elements from the original production may have merit over the scenes that replaced them.

Love is important to “Side Show,” as it is to almost all musicals and plays. It is clear Jake’s affection for Violet is more than brotherly protectiveness. You an read the ardor in David St. Louis’s face as he plays Jake.

In Condon’s production, you don’t see enough of Buddy’s growing regard for Violet, and you hear about Violet’s romantic feelings towards Buddy more from Daisy egging her on to be more demonstrative about her amorous leanings than Violet is willing to be.

My memory of the 1997 script has Buddy and Violet being clearer in their intentions and truer in their affection. The 1997 script also avoided giving Buddy a distraction (impediment?) from his regard for Violet.

Condon’s script and production seems to more lightly suggest the passion between Violet and Buddy. It also downplays Daisy’s reaction to being a constant third wheel in the affair.

More importantly, it downplays Daisy’s attraction to Terry and the pains Terry takes to resist acknowledging his fervor for Daisy.

Key conflicts are acted out before our eyes. Musically, all of the lovers or potential lovers has his or her moment of intense expression. But there doesn’t seem to be a core of sincerity in how the centerpiece wedding sequence is presented. We are told more than we are shown. Again, I was left to intuit intellectually emotion that should have been gut-wrenching and was in previous productions of “Side Show,” including in a concert version 11th Hour Theatre performed in Philadelphia last winter.

Condon doesn’t help matters by revising Russell’s original ideas to offer a simple reason why Buddy cannot commit to Violet and by soft-pedaling the romantic relationship between Terry and Daisy.

After the Hiltons, Buddy, and dancer named Ray perform “Stuck on You,” Terry comments about Buddy’s attachment, to extend a metaphor, to Ray. Daisy also hints at this when she says others can hide”secrets’ in way she and Violet cannot.

The gay gambit in Condon’s script is a copout and an intrusion. Buddy’s homosexuality becomes an easy excuse for him to say his love, genuine in its way, for Violet is a ruse, and to rescind his engagement to her.

In Russell’s original script, Buddy’s reason for reneging on his marriage proposal is cowardice. His love for Violet is sincere. As I’ve noted, we see it develop. It is only that the last minute, the morning that a big wedding ceremony Terry has planned for Texas’s Cotton Bowl is about to be held, that Buddy realizes he cannot go through with all of the publicity, sacrifice, hardship, and other ramifications of being married to a woman who is permanently and irremedially attached to another human, one who will be there with them at all times.

Russell and Krieger wrote a witty song about the situation, “1+1=3″ (my girlfriend, her sister, and me), that is performed by Buddy, Violet, and Daisy, but, in the 1997 original, humor and good intentions cannot disguise Buddy’s revulsion at the reality of being wed to Violet.

When cold feet or a realization that one is not fit enough to cope with a unique and difficult situation is the reason for a jilt, one can understand and empathize with the reluctant fiancé while feeling even more compassion for the woman left at the altar. A gay attachment, even if Condon can show that is what stood between Violet and Buddy in real life, is too cheap, too convenient, too easy. It robs the ‘I can’t go through with it” scene of all drama and pathos. It avoids the poignancy, the sharp, shocking sting of reality, “Side Show” desperately needs. Condon’s adaptation weakens the show. It provides a less meaningful and human an excuse for one person in love to disappoint and break the heart of another. I worry that Condon was giving into the current theatrical fashion that finds room for a gay character in almost any script. How trite that would be!

Condon doesn’t even have the courage to show Buddy and Ray’s dalliance in any but the most subtle and winking terms. Remember, we hear more about it than we see of it. I know “Side Show” is set in the early 1930s when taboos about homosexuality would make it dangerous to flout, but this musical is about the courage and fortitude to be one’s self. It’s about individuality that can’t be disguised even if the individuals depicted yearn to be more part of the general crowd and pray for normality. The Buddy-Ray relationship just seems like toadying.

That brings up another matter Condon adds to “Side Show” in both thought-provoking and clumsy ways.

In the new scenes involving Auntie, and set in England before the Hiltons come with Auntie and Sir to the United States, Auntie mentions taking Daisy and Violet to a doctor to determine if they can be safely separated. The sisters, after all, are conjoined by tissue, an extra web of skin on their lower backs and hips. They do not share any organs, and no bones are involved in their conjuncture.

The surgeons tell Auntie that Violet and Daisy can be separated but mentions the risk that one of the sisters may die during the operation. That ends Auntie’s consideration of surgery. It also sticks in Daisy and Violet’s minds any time the subject of separation is broached. They even sing their big end-of-show number, “I Will Never Leave You,” in the first act when detaching them is first mentioned in another song, “Cut Them Apart.”

Separation is important to Terry. He has seen something in Daisy’s eyes since he first noticed her in Sir’s side show. Terry may not be expressive, but he clearly loves Daisy.

He prefers to keep things between them strictly business, but Daisy, who also has romantic leanings towards Terry, presses the issue. Terry says he would only marry Daisy on the condition that she agrees to an operation that would separate her from Violet. Unlike Buddy’s claim that he could be a husband to Violet even with Daisy forever nearby, Terry cannot see himself as part of a foursome or in a relationship that can never be truly private.

Terry constantly makes the ultimatum that his love for Daisy will only be consummated if she is detached from Violet. He says surgery in 1932 is more advanced than when the Hiltons were children and repeats surgeons’ opinions that neither Daisy nor Violet is in danger if they undergo an operation.

Daisy is wary. She and Violet are both more comfortable living life as they have. Remember, they have been conjoined since birth. They did not have to adjust to a “deformity.” They’ve lived it every day of their lives. Separation would be the jolt.

Even when Daisy imagines herself an individual entity, detached from her sister, something Condon shows us in a fantasy sequence in which Daisy and Terry dance unencumbered by Violet’s presence, she doesn’t believe surgery comes without risk. Her refusal to have an operation, a decision Violet leaves to her, ends any hope she has that Terry will marry her.

A plot thread involving separation is an interesting choice as well as being the right kind of obvious choice. We, in the audience, need to see that solution covered and disposed of one way or another. Terry’s ultimatum is, nonetheless, too convenient. Condon has given both Buddy and Terry ways out of marriage to the Hiltons. Russell made the romances, and the reasons they would not be realized, more dramatic, poignant, and heartbreaking in his 1997 rendition.

In Russell’s version, Terry is married when he meets the Hiltons. He is randomly unfaithful to his wife and an absentee father to his children, so his being with Daisy seems of no consequence.

Until he falls in love with her. Terry cannot commit. He cannot be exclusive with any woman, but in Russell’s take, he truly adores Daisy and would consider marrying her. He plays a game that employs his marriage as an excuse why he and Daisy cannot wed.

The 1997 script has a number called “Tunnel of Love” in which the Hiltons, Buddy, and Terry go to an amusement park and take the famous ride. Terry loses himself in the dark of the tunnel and in the emotion of having time with Daisy that Violet, though right there, can’t witness. He realizes how much he loves Daisy and how much he needs to be alone with her at practically the same instance. His ardor and cold feet increase by equal quotients. As with Buddy, he cannot commit to the struggle living with Daisy every day, in the daylight, would require.

You see how much more romantic and mature this plot line is. Separation should be mentioned as a possibility in “Side Show.” The way Condon works it in is a tad unsavory.

In general, the second acts of both versions of “Side Show” work better than the first because they are more targeted and specific. As much as I found Condon’s second act engrossing, I prefer Russell’s because I think the emotions expressed by “Side Show’s” four principals are more honest and dramatically moving in that version.

The easy solution of making Buddy gay, and of having Terry make a condition out of something he knows Daisy would be loathe to do, mitigates Condon’s second act. It weakens it. What happens might be dramatic, but again, it’s dramatic by the numbers and takes away some necessary tension that keeps “Side Show” from appealing to one’s heart. You keep thinking, “If only…” You want “Side Show” to meet its obvious potential, but Condon seems to sabotage his effort by stopping at the interesting and intrinsically dramatic and never attacking the jugular.

He has the opportunity, Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are superb as Violet and Daisy Hilton.

Though Davie plays the shyer, more discreet, and more domestic of the sisters, her Violet is a more direct character who often has a snazzy comeback or a line that wilts people who are condescending or appear to taking the Hiltons for fools.

It is Davie that seems to have the glint in her eye that catches the attention of the audience. She also exudes a sweetness and sense of diplomacy that makes Violet seem like a Teresa Wright character from a ’40s movie.

Padgett has some wonderful passages in which she has to balance Daisy’s ambitions and dreams with both overall reality and a circumstance at hand, e.g. Violet’s engagement and impending marriage. She is especially strong in the scene in which Daisy arrives at a course of action that her sister, Terry, and Buddy will accept regarding Violet’s wedding in front of tens of thousands in Texas’s Cotton Bowl.

The way Davie and Padgett anticipate and carry out each move they have to make together is a marvel to behold. They never miss a step or a beat. Not once do they give the slightest impression they are not conjoined in the same way Daisy and Violet Hilton are. Davie and Padgett are like a precision swimming team that has its synchronization down to a flawless science.

Dance numbers have a special lilt and show the mettle and poise of both actresses. On several occasions, the Hiltons speak simultaneously. These moments are pinpoint. The women are right on cue and in unison.

From the beginning, Davie and Padgett must sing together, and their harmonies are exquisite. Each gets the right tone and emotion in her voice. Payoff numbers such as “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” are exhilarating stunners. Production numbers, choreographed with wit and vibrancy by Van Laast, are fun, the synchronization again being magnificent.

David St. Louis is moving as Jake. If anyone on the Eisenhower Theater stage can elicit emotion, St. Louis can. Even before the actor distinguishes himself with the way he conveys his affection for Violet, he shows great dignity. He may play a fierce cannibal in a frowsy side show, but offstage, he has the grace and manners of an aristocrat, one who will do anything to assist or impress one Miss Violet Hilton.

It is Jake, jealous because of Violet’s imminent marriage, who exposes Buddy’s doubts and makes him confess with affection for Ray. Jake hopes Violet will accept his proposal in lieu of the promise Buddy has withdrawn. In a great display of raw emotion and sincere adoration, St. Louis tears up with the stage with his musical declaration to Violet, “You Should Be Loved.”

Everyone in the second act is given a special number, and each actor nails his or her aria, but St. Louis makes his song memorable and may spark the one moment Condon’s production elicits true empathy, or pity, for someone on stage.

Ryan Silverman embodies the smooth operator who has connections. His Terry always has his eye on the next chance, the next way for everyone to profit from the public’s curiosity to see, and propensity to enjoy seeing, the Hilton sisters.

Matthew Hydzik has several sweet moments as Buddy. He displays kindness and openness when he is first told he will be creating dances for the Hiltons. His regard for Violet is gradual and, in one of Condon’s better written scenes, he expresses his loneliness and his desire for a soulmate with intensity and sincerity that makes you think he and Violet have a chance at happiness. These bonding scenes with Violet occur before Condon introduces Buddy’s infatuation with Ray. Oh, if Condon had only trusted Russell’s script and showed Buddy as a man who loves but without the ability to face adversity and not fallen back to the lame gay plot as an exit strategy!

Condon did have an inspired moment by bringing back several of the side show performers, forgotten after the first scenes in Russell’s script, as guests as Violet’s wedding.

This sequence gave you the chance to see the alleged freaks as good friends who are happy for Violet and thrilled to see her launched in a new chapter of life. Charity Angel Dawson, Josh Walker, Jordanna James, and Matthew Patrick Davis are great in the pre-wedding scene.

Robert Joy exudes the exploitative and fraudulent nature of Sir. Though a man who makes an honest living of sorts by doing what he must, and though a man who does live up to his vow to protect Daisy and Violet from cruelty the outside world can heap on them in greater doses than audiences from the side show, Sir is coarse and conniving, Uriah Heep without the virtue of friendliness or good fellowship.

Condon conceives Sir as Dickensian, and Joy lives up to his vision. He reeks villainy.

Condon, expanding the scenes of the Hiltons’ vaudeville experience, writes in a part for Harry Houdini and gives an entertaining number, “All in the Mind” to Javier Ignacio. He also creates the part of the woman who agreed to take the Hilton sisters from their mother and raise them, Auntie. This part is also played in a Dickens-like characterization by Blair Ross.

Paul Tazewell executed delightful costumes that flattered Davie and Padgett while being cleverly tailored to accommodate their conjuncture. His outfit for Sir and for the look he established several of the side show characters are equally appropriate and witty. He kept Terry dapper and Buddy sporty, which is shrewd.

David Rockwell was called upon to conceive several different kinds of sets. Whether capturing the claustrophobic squalor and gloom of the side show living quarters or being expansive with the backgrounds of production numbers, Rockwell shows an ability to convey realism while giving the “Side Show” troupe ample spaces in which to perform.

“Side Show” runs through Sunday, July 13 at the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center, 2700 “F” Street NW, in Washington, D.C. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $130 to $65 and can be obtained by calling 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324 or by going online to

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