Monday, December 8, 2014

Side Show and Allegro: Another Go-Round

Ryan Silverman, Emily Padgett, Erin Davie and Matthew Hydzik in Side Show (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Opening on Broadway in 1997, Side Show lasted only about three months; the current revival, staged by Bill Condon, is the first version I’ve had a chance to see. Written by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (book and lyrics), it’s a semi-fictionalized account of the lives of the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, born in England to an unmarried barmaid and then displayed in America by abusive adoptive parents. In the musical, an unemployed talent scout named Terry Connor sees them in a side show in San Antonio in the early days of the Depression, gets his song-and-dance-man pal Buddy Foster to teach them to sing and dance, and encourages them to sue the proprietor – Sir, their foster father – for their freedom. They win, and Terry puts them on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.

It’s an odd topic for a musical, but you can tell that Krieger and Russell are attaching themselves to the prized legacy of backstage musicals with gritty, seedy milieux: Pal Joey, Gypsy, especially Cabaret. (Sir is a cut-rate edition of Cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies, and the second-act vaudeville number, “One Plus One Equals Three,” which puts Buddy in bed with the twins after he and Violet have announced their offstage engagement, carries the obvious influence of the “Two Ladies” trio in Cabaret, as well as “Buddy’s Blues” from Sondheim’s Follies.) But though the show has a strong opening – the “Come Look at the Freaks” song, performed by Sir’s show-biz cast – and, in this version, which the director, Bill Condon, has revised, and an even stronger ending, it suffers from a meandering book and a mediocre score. In the early eighties, Krieger wrote the music for Dreamgirls, which Condon directed on film, but so far that’s his only score worth listening to. Side Show has one good ballad, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?,” a duet for the twins that closes act one (the side-show performers reappear behind a scrim for an affecting final chorus). The rest of the music is dross and the lyrics are prosaic, sometimes embarrassingly so.

Photo by Joan Marcus
When Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie) become vaudevillians, the press is intrusive, asking them questions that hint around about their sex lives; even away from the side show, they can’t shake the public perception of them as circus freaks. Yet Daisy longs for real fame, and Violet for a life away from the limelight, with a husband and children. The real Hilton twins married (briefly) and had love affairs; Russell uses Terry (Ryan Silverman) and Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) to stand in for their struggles to lead the romantic lives of ordinary human beings. The trouble is that the plot doesn’t make sense. Buddy seems to fall in love with Violet and proposes to her at a society party on New Year’s Eve. But then the twins’ closest friend, Jake (David St. Louis), the black man whom Sir (Robert Joy) hired to take care of the twins – Terry hires him away after Jake gives testimony against Sir in court – suddenly declares his love for Violet. He warns her (in the song “You Should Be Loved”) that Buddy can’t love her as she deserves; Buddy has a crisis of conscience and realizes that he’s right. Meanwhile Daisy and Terry appear to have fallen in love, and she begs him to marry her. But then, if I read the confusing climax right, he shows his true colors and we find out that he’s always thought of the sisters in purely commercial terms – as freaks. Condon’s revision tries to explain Buddy’s turnabout by making him covertly gay; I suppose we’re meant to think that his protestations of love to Violet are his way of denying his sexuality. But you don’t buy it, and the script offers nothing at all to explain Terry’s switch. Silverman and Hydzik are good, but they can’t make any of this stuff remotely convincing. The revised ending, however, is haunting: Hollywood director Tod Browning (Don Richard) offers the Hiltons a contract to be in his new movie, and when they ask him what it’s called, he answers, “Freaks” – and as the show moves onto the soundstage, it goes into its finale, a reprise (naturally) of “Come Look at the Freaks.”

The musical is problematic, but Condon’s production is excellent, sometimes even thrilling. He and choreographer Anthony Van Laast have staged it beautifully, the production values – David Rockwell’s sets, Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting – are shimmering, and the ensemble could hardly be better. In the role of Jake, which brought Norm Lewis to the forefront in 1997, David St. Louis has a majestic baritone; his warning song to the Hiltons when they decide to get away from the side show, “The Devil You Know,” brings down the house. (It would have been a service to him if Condon had reined in his second-act “You Should Be Loved”; he makes it sound even more melodramatic than it already is.) All the side-show performers sing well, and Charity Angel Dawson, as the Fortune Teller, is a standout. Davie and Padgett act with grace and sing with power; their harmonies on “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and the show’s best-known song, “I Will Never Leave You,” are the highlights of the evening. Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley’s performances in the original version were praised extravagantly, but it’s hard to believe they were more moving than Padgett and especially Davie (who has a plaintive quality, especially on “Feelings You’ve Got to Hide.”) The musical remains a decidedly mixed experience, but it’s not likely to receive a more exciting revival.

Claybourne Elder and Elizabeth A. Davis in Classic Stage Company’s production of Allegro. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Allegro (1947) was the musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote between Carousel and South Pacific; among their forties input – which began, of course, with Oklahoma! – it was the only one that didn’t get a long run (though it stayed on the boards for nearly a year). Hammerstein retained a fondness for it; it was the one of their shows he always wished had been given a second chance. Well, now it has been, in an off-Broadway production by the Classic Stage Company pared down to ninety minutes without intermission. It’s perhaps the earliest concept musical. (Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill came up with another, Love Life, in 1948.) Hammerstein’s book is about a small-town boy named Joseph Taylor, Jr. who becomes a physician, like his father, holding out against his ambitious, materialistic fiancĂ©e Jenny Brinker, who wants him to go into business with her dad. When the stock market crash wipes him out, Brinker is forced to admit that Joe took the wiser route, but Jenny doesn’t hanker for the life of a humble doctor’s wife. She gets Joe to take a job in Chicago that calls on him to spend more time schmoozing rich patrons than practicing medicine, and increasingly he longs to return to the life he abandoned and the values his parents instilled in him.

Hammerstein was clearly inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith and, in the adolescent scenes, by Our Town, but God knows he isn’t Lewis and he isn’t Thornton Wilder. Allegro is even more trite than Oklahoma!, even more pseudo-folksy than Carousel, even preachier than South Pacific. It’s damn near intolerable, and the material must have taken the wind out of Rodgers’s sails: there’s only one decent song, “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” sung by Joe’s Chicago nurse Emily, who has fallen for him. The CSC production, directed by John Doyle, makes it feel even worse than it is. The staging is dull, and Doyle hauls out his trademark – having the actors play instruments – which so far has worked only once, in his brilliant Sweeney Todd, where it had a Brechtian point and didn’t come across as merely embroidery. Doyle can do other things (Sondheim’s Passion at CSC, the Williamstown production of Kander and Ebb’s The Visit last summer); I’m not sure why he prefers to present himself as a one-trick pony. He needs a trusted colleague to keep him on the straight and narrow. Allegro wakes up midway with an acid performance of an ironic song called “Money Isn’t Everything,” and the bitterness Elizabeth A. Davis brings to the role of Jenny is interesting; when she talks to Joe (Claybourne Elder) about her desire to have a child, the prospect unsettles us. But when the musical relocates to Chicago, it becomes self-consciously “dark,” and you start to remember Doyle’s worst mistake, the revue he staged at Williamstown called Ten Cents a Dance, which took about a dozen and a half beautiful Rodgers and Hart songs and weighed them down with enough unspecific – and undifferentiated – angst to wreck them. (Fortunately, these problematized renditions drained out of the brain after a few days, so no permanent damage was done to the Great American Songbook.) Malcolm Gets, who plays the elder Joe Taylor, is an alumnus of that misbegotten show.

The cast is pretty dreadful – especially, I thought, George Abud as Joe’s best friend from his college days, Charlie Townsend, and Alma Cuervo as Grandma Taylor (though Ann Hould-Ward, who designed a strikingly ugly costume for her, bears at least some of the blame for her overbearing presence). During the chorus numbers, they all flash bland, fake smiles at the audience, as if they were performing in a recital rather than a play. I held out some hope for “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” but Jane Pfitsch doesn’t do much with it; I couldn’t wait to get home and play the vivid rendition by Lisa Kirk on the original cast album – which landed her the role of Lois Lane in the following year’s Kiss Me, Kate – or, better yet, the cover by the great Jo Stafford. The upside of this dismal production is that it’s likely to be many years before anyone has the harebrained idea to take this musical out of mothballs again.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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