Two cult musicals which didn’t achieve long runs in their original Broadway productions have resurfaced in radically new interpretations. Both highlight the shows’ strengths and their directors have found new insights, but neither production totally overcomes the scripts’ basic weaknesses. Side Show, on Broadway at the St. James, has been substantially rewritten since its 1997 edition, and Allegro, a Rodgers and Hammerstein curio from 1947, is being given the John Doyle treatment, with the cast playing the instruments, in a limited Off-Broadway run at Classic Stage Company.
This current revival of Side Show is a big improvement over the original. As directed by Robert Longbottom, this true-life musical bio of the conjoined Hilton sisters, circus curiosities who rose to fame in vaudeville and brief film stardom, was a bare-bones affair. The set consisted of a set of bleachers and there were no elaborate costumes to reproduce the Hiltons’ condition and that of their fellow “freaks” in the carny show where they started. Bill Condon, the director and screenwriter of the film version of Dreamgirls and the scripter for the movie Chicago, uses his cinematic know-how with this totally revamped resurrection. Now with the aide of David Rockwell’s midway-from-hell set, Paul Tazewell’s lavish and evocative costumes, and the spooky lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the world of the Hiltons is frighteningly real—1930s glamour cheek by jowl with the gritty sawdust-and-tinsel of the side show. Condon has substantially rewritten Bill Russell’s book and lyricist Russell and composer Henry Krieger have come up several new tunes.
Condon’s staging is slick and inventive, giving the story a film-like flow. The musical numbers, snappily choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, evoke classic shows like Chicago (a razzle-dazzle courtroom scene) and Follies (a satiric “Loveland” pastiche complete with hearts, flowers, and cupids). The story is more strongly told than in the original and Russell and Krieger’s soaring ballads are now complemented with sturdier comedy and narrative pieces. But slow stretches remain and the overall tone is still too syrupy when it could have been vinegar sharp (as in the HBO series Carnivale).
Erin Davie and Emily Padgett meld together almost as one being as the linked siblings, yet retain their individuality with Davie sweet and demure as the shy Violet and Padgett brash and outgoing as the flirtatious Daisy. When they harmonize on the gut-wrenching “Who Will Love Me as I Am,” they melt even the hardest hearts. (This is one instance when the sugar content is just right.) The male leads, Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik, are proficient but weaker than the ladies, while David St. Louis gives a powerful accounting of Jake, the girls’ loyal African-American protector who has more than friendly affection for Violet. Robert Joy is a hissable villain as the sideshow owner and Blair Ross and Don Richard make the most of ensemble roles.
For another unusual musical, we turn Off-Broadway for CSC’s revival of Allegro, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s few unsuccessful shows. Today, you wouldn’t think of R&H as experimenting with the traditional musical comedy form. But Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific were all considered non-mainstream (in varying degrees) in their day. Allegro, originally directed and choreographed by Agnes de Mille, was a sort of musical Our Town with no scenery and a chorus providing commentary on the action, but unlike the thread of Thornton Wilder’s classic, Allegro’s story is oversimplified rather than universal.
Hammerstein’s book traces the life of small-town doctor Joseph Taylor, Jr. from infancy to college to romance with the ambitious Jenny Brinker to forsaking his father’s practice to become a big-city hospital administrator in order to please Jenny. Of course, he returns to his hometown in the end and rural values trump big-city phoniness.
Audiences weren’t ready for the frankly presentational style in an R&H tuner despite the homey message and Allegro has been reserved for concert and retrospective presentations. The only hit to emerge was the bittersweet “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” sung by Joseph’s idealist nurse, Emily. John Doyle’s trademark of having the cast double as the orchestra (which he used in Sweeney Todd and Company on Broadway, and in Passion at CSC) works well with the concept of a community narrating the story and there are improvements. In the original production, Joseph does not even appear until he’s an adult. Doyle changes this by having him appear as a baby and child which increases audience identification. In addition, Doyle has edited the script down to 90 minutes, but it still comes across as black-and-white in its moralism (country life good, city life bad).
Despite the weak book, there is much to savor here including Claybourne Elder’s not-too-wholesome Joseph, Elizabeth A. Davis’s coolly calculating Jenny, Jane Pfitsch’s spunky Emily, and Megan Loomis who provides one of the show’s highlights, a gorgeously straightforward delivery of the unappreciated gem “So Far” self-accompanied on a ukulele.
Both these reworked “lost” shows are worth taking in, but don’t expect perfection.
Side Show: Opened Nov. 17 for an open run. St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., NYC. Tue., Thu., 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.—Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $49-$155. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.
Allegro: Nov. 19-Dec. 14. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., NYC. Tue.—Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri.—Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.—Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. $70. (866) 811-4111 or www.classicstage.org.
This review was previously posted on Theaterlife.com.