Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint exactly why a musical flops. Take, for instance, Side Show. Despite earning four Tony Award nominations (including Best Musical) as well as a cult following, the show played a scant 91 performances during the 1997-98 Broadway season. Thanks to the reliable Gallery Players, it is now enjoying a heartfelt revival in Brooklyn—its first major New York-area production since its Broadway debut. Based on the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, Side Show chronicles the twins' rise to fame on the 1930s vaudeville circuit. Bill Russell and Henry Krieger penned a gorgeous score for the nearly sung-through show, including several power ballads that have since become contemporary standards.
Central to the show, however, are the twins, and director Matt Schicker has helmed an earnest production that smartly puts Daisy and Violet's humanity at the forefront. The action unfurls at a brisk, heady speed, carrying the audience along with the twins on their turbulent whirlwind adventure toward realizing their dreams.
Enterprising producers Terry Connor and Buddy Foster discover Daisy and Violet at a seedy Texas sideshow and lure them away from their diabolical Boss. Daisy and Violet "want to be like everyone else," but that means something different for each of them. The more introverted Violet longs for a loving husband and a family life, while Daisy, the extrovert, wants to be rich and famous.
They rocket to stardom as Buddy coaches them in song and dance, and romance also blooms (a bit problematically) among the foursome. Daisy is instantly (and very obviously) drawn to Terry, while Violet privately nurtures her slowly developing love for Buddy. By the end, each twin has realized her dream, but not exactly as she had hoped.
As the twins, Kristen Sergeant and Tiffany Diane Smith give convincing portrayals of two very disparate personalities. Smith is a comic delight as Daisy, and she mixes a lovely old-movie-musical charm with sassy grit to create a very fresh interpretation of the more feisty twin. As good as Smith is, however, Sergeant steals the show as Violet. Her graceful, open performance exhibits all of Violet's conflict and sensitivity; you never doubt her.
Both have strong, captivating voices that combine to sound like one, and the production numbers are well paced to showcase their developing talents. "Rare Songbirds on Display" is a vocal highlight, as is the big Act I closer, "Who Will Love Me as I Am?" A successful wig job makes Sergeant and Smith look alike, but I couldn't help wishing that more effort had been put into making them appear to be the same height (adjusting shoe height and matching their hemlines) to further suspend disbelief.
Energetic Jimmy Hays Nelson makes a perfect Buddy, youthful and bright with a stunning tenor voice. Matt Witten brings a slick, smarmy charm to Terry, and his performance—along with his warm, easy voice—becomes more solid in Act II.
In the rather thankless role of Jake, the black "cannibal king" who leaves the sideshow to accompany the twins on their journey, Melvin Shambry shows a lot of vocal passion, but his acting doesn't quite bring that fire into his interactions with other characters. Greg Horton is deliciously disturbing as the tyrannical Boss.
The ensemble offers strong performances, both collectively and individually. Unfortunately, they are often encumbered by awkward choreography and staging. In "The Devil You Know," a bit of West Side Story-inspired choreography turns the stage into a morass of misguided bodies, muffling the vocals. And at the end of several scenes, cast members slink slowly away from the action, fading offstage without any clear motivation.
Joseph Trainor has devised a creative and functional set that employs moving wooden panels painted for each sideshow character, while Melanie Swersey has chosen a lovely palette of costumes for the large cast.
Side Show is such an abbreviated ride that you can't help wanting to know even more about Daisy and Violet. Out of their personal tragedy (wanting what one simply cannot have) springs a very universal need—the desire to be loved for who and what you are, without apology. And in this production, the Gallery Players poignantly explore this theme as they bring the twins' story to life.
So why did the show flop on Broadway? One theory: Side Show launched the careers of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, who shared a 1998 Tony nomination for their performances as the Hiltons. Perhaps the nominating committee's decision to lump two very distinctive performances into one reflected the attitude of an audience (and society) that wasn't quite ready for the Hilton twins, and was more comfortable with grouping them together and casting them—once again—as freaks.