Early in "Side Show," the musical about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, a smooth-talking impresario promises he can get the women great gigs in the vaudeville circuit. "I'm very well connected," he says. The twins respond: "So are we."
It's a good laugh line, but it stings a little, just as it should. This mix of light and dark flows tellingly through "Side Show," a 1997 semi-hit on Broadway that has been revised and tweaked for a Kennedy Center revival created in association with the La Jolla Playhouse.
The new "Side Show," directed with as much flair as nuance by Bill Condon (his film credits include writer/director of "Gods and Monsters" and "Dreamgirls"), is a sturdy attraction well worth stepping right up to.
Bill Russell's book, based loosely on the real Hilton sisters and other exploited "freaks" in the bad old days, now has additional material by Condon. The score -- music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Russell -- now has several new songs, too.
I didn't see the first "Side Show," but I imagine that folks who retain fond memories of the original will be OK with the changes. This is a solidly constructed musical, with an effective progression of emotional peaks and valleys, a good dose of surprise and, above all, considerable sensitivity to a difficult subject matter.
It's also a beautifully produced show that captures the tawdry, if ever so tempting, world of the freak shows, as well as the more legit environs the Hiltons get to experience. David Rockwell designed the vibrant sets, Paul Tazewell the terrific costumes.
Given how well Krieger summons a genuine '30s flavor in a few songs, I wish he had given the whole score a tint of the past. He settles too often on the generic pop style that turns up in so many musicals. And, also like so many musicals, this one has characters sing -- awkwardly -- quite a few lines that would be better left spoken.
But qualms fade quickly in light of how well things click in "Side Show," how story and song communicate effectively. A top-notch cast helps.
Erin Davie, as Violet, and Emily Padgett, as Daisy, could not be better matched, dramatically and vocally. They create distinct and affecting characters who, connected physically at the hip, are also clearly connected by the heart. When they assert that bond in the Act 2 anthem "I Will Never Leave You," it's the real deal.
(That song tugs all the more when you think how pitifully the Hilton twins died, one after the other, alone in a humble home in 1969. The musical's story ends just before they were signed to appear in the 1932 cult film "Freaks.")
Ryan Silverman does a winning job as Terry, the talent hunter who knows a good thing when he sees it and turns out to be capable of more than material instincts. An equally fine combination of acting and singing skills comes from Matthew Hydzik as Buddy, brought in by Terry to help hone the sisters' act. (Buddy's sexual orientation is treated with commendable subtlety and insight.)
As Sir, the man who has long controlled the twins and is keen to fight Terry's plans for them, Robert Joy manages to be slimy and sympathetic. A colorful, artful performance. David St. Louis is a commanding presence as Jake, the sisters' African American friend and protector; Jake's stifled love for Violet adds a poignant edge to the plot.
The large ensemble handles multiple assignments with elan; the portrayals of the freak show characters are never overdone. In between playing Dog Boy and others, Javier Ignacio delivers a notable cameo as Houdini, singing his advice to the sisters in one of the new songs, "All in the Mind," with great finesse.
We have progressed at least a little since the days when physical disabilities served as crass entertainment. "Side Show" provides a worthy reminder of how cruel things could be, still can be. But this inventive and stirring musical also neatly underlines what is possible when people appreciate the many ways we are all attached.