In the second of my three Wall Street Journal drama columns for this week, I review the Broadway premieres of the revised version of Side Show and Jez Butterworth’s The River, starring Hugh Jackman. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
It isn’t usual for musical-comedy flops to get a second crack at Broadway, but “Side Show,” a 1997 bomb that closed after 91 performances and thereafter became a cult classic, has now been radically revised and brought back to New York in the wake of well-received runs at California’s La Jolla Playhouse and Washington’s Kennedy Center. While I didn’t see the original production, it’s obvious why it tanked: “Side Show” tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins who became Depression-era vaudeville headliners, then starred in “Freaks,” Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film about a carnival sideshow. No matter how good such a musical may be, the tourist trade is more likely to prefer something a trifle less dark. So does the new “Side Show” have a shot at the brass ring of box-office success? I think so—though it’s still flawed.
First, the good news: This production, directed by Bill Condon, who also rewrote the book, packs a thermonuclear wallop….
Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are very, very fine as the Hilton twins, though I wish they’d take a few more chances when they sing. Sometimes they sound like first-class choristers who are trying to match each other’s tones rather than a pair of sisterly but dissimilar rivals (one is shy, the other brassily extroverted) who just happen to be joined at the hip….
While the first act now works impressively well, the second act gets gooey, and the show ends with such unconvincing abruptness that you feel as though a guillotine has been used to amputate what by all rights should have been an unhappy ending…
“Side Show” is a rare example of a musical whose words are significantly more expressive than its music. Henry Krieger’s pop tunes are effective enough in their power-ballady way, but they lack the touch of acid that the plot leads you to expect….
Jez Butterworth is hot in England, vastly less so in the U.S. The only reason why “The River” has made it to Broadway is the onstage presence of Hugh Jackman, who could move tickets merely by standing in the lobby and smiling. He’s good—he always is—but the play is pretentious beyond belief, a three-hander about a fisherman-artist-hunk (Mr. Jackman) who brings his new girl (Cush Jumbo) to an isolated cabin, where he lectures her on the spiritual significance of fishing in between tumbles in the sleeping bag…
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
The real-life Hilton sisters sing “Every Hour of Every Day”: