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Review: Reworked 'Side Show' puts gripping emotion in the main tent

— When "Side Show" first appeared on Broadway in 1997, the critics had plenty of nice things to say but audiences weren't rushing out in droves to see a musical about conjoined twins. The show closed after 91 performances.

But this musical by Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and "Dreamgirls" composer Henry Krieger (music) has been haunted by its unrealized potential. A cult favorite that many musical theater aficionados feel deserves another crack at the big time, the show has just gotten a major overhaul at La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This retooled version doesn't solve all the musical's problems, but it capitalizes on the lurid showbiz milieu and it powerfully magnifies the heart of this more or less true tale of the Hilton sisters, "Siamese twins" who became a vaudeville sensation. 

The book needs another round of revisions, and the best songs in the extensively refurbished score are still the old ones, but it's a pleasure to encounter a musical that is too emotionally rich to be consigned to oblivion. 

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Directed by Bill Condon, who adapted and directed the movie version of "Dreamgirls" and therefore knows his way around a Krieger melody, the production has the flash and velocity of a Hollywood motion picture. The Broadway production was criticized for being skimpy, but while David Rockwell's scenic design keeps the trappings fleet and spare, the dazzling lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer charges the atmosphere with the swirling energy of an extravaganza.

At the center of this spectacle are two demurely attractive young women literally joined at the hip. Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie) Hilton started off as a carnival attraction in the early 20th century and became legit headliners looking for the same thing reality TV stars want today — money, fame and (ah, there's the rub) a happily married life just like ordinary people, whoever they may be.

The opening number, "Come Look at the Freaks," introduces us to the circus oddities working alongside the sisters while setting up the peculiar nature of a musical that wants to find the universal sentiment about love and self-acceptance in the strangest of milieus. 

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Sir (Robert Joy), the villainous impresario who browbeats his "attractions," insists that the performers sell their own freakishness: "Come see God's mistakes / The freaks God forsakes / Take a look at exotic creatures / Their mangled features / The mess God makes."

Life changes for the sisters when Terry Connor (Manoel Felciano) and Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) catch them perform. Terry wants to take their act to vaudeville and promises to set them free from their abusive overlord at the side show who happens to also be their legal guardian. Buddy is the song-and-dance man charged with working a miracle.

The book has been supplemented with additional material by Condon, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for "Gods and Monsters" and was nominated for his screenplay for "Chicago," but the evolving relationships between Terry and Daisy and Buddy and Violet are fuzzily drawn.

Part of this is the sheer complication of the characters. Buddy genuinely loves shy and modest Violet, but he's a closeted homosexual. Terry fancies extroverted and ambitious Daisy, but he doesn't want to share her with her sibling. 

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Yet there's something sketchy about the motives of Terry and Buddy, who are initially looking to make a buck off the sisters. Jake (David St. Louis), the side show's "Cannibal King" who is Daisy and Violet's self-appointed protector, eyes these two smooth-talking gentlemen warily, warning the girls to watch their step in the rousing number "The Devil You Know." He's jealous, but his suspicions aren't ungrounded.

The issue here isn't that Terry and Buddy are a confusing mix of con game and sweetness but that the ambiguity isn't well plotted.

Complicating matters further is Jake's passionate yearning for Violet. He offers the sister an answer to their song "Who Will Love Me as I Am?", the ravishing number that concludes the musical's first act and expresses the show's grand theme. But racial prejudice toward a black man turns out to be entrenched even among those who are victims of other forms of bigotry.

The complexity is laudable but could be handled more adroitly. Condon's production has more success with clarifying the internal conflict of the sisters, who long for a love of their own, though not if it means having to become completely separate individuals.

As romances go, "Side Show" is several standard deviations from the norm, but the contradictions besetting Daisy and Violet are relatable all the same.

Padgett and Davie, aided by Paul Tazewell's eye-catching costumes and Anthony Van Laast's tricky choreography, grow in emotional heft as the show reaches its conclusion. Their final, beautifully sung duet, "I Will Never Leave You," may not satisfy those who want musicals to supply the happy endings life stingily doles out, but it will appeal to those who simply want to be deeply moved in the theater.

Felciano's Terry and Hydzik's Buddy are both dashing, though their characterizations need to be more sharply delineated. St. Louis' Jake, a paragon of restrained ardency, is the standout in the supporting cast. Keala Settle, who plays the Fortune Teller, brings some vocal pyrotechnics to the carnival crew.

The score, blending "Dreamgirls" soul with "Follies"-like pastiche, has been substantially reworked. The new material has been smoothly integrated, though the show's dramatic tangle persists.

"Side Show" probably isn't fated to be a blockbuster any more than Daisy and Violet were meant to be mainstream superstars, but the musical deserves a longer life. This production left me feeling haunted, and not simply over its unrealized potential. This tender freak show will break your heart.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com 

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