Side Show comes with everything you'd want in a Broadway-caliber musical: a soaring score with its share of big-moment ballads, a sumptuous set, inspired costumes and makeup and a trusty cast of experienced pros. So, then, why is Bill Russell and Henry Krieger's 1997 Broadway musical at La Jolla Playhouse so unsettling—not from anything you see but from what you feel?
You get this uneasy quivering in your stomach from the very beginning, when you meet the inhabitants of a carnival freak show, and it doesn't go away, long after the action has shifted from the circus tent to the vaudeville stage. The carnival has been left behind, true enough, but the freak show continues: Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton are swept away and lured toward a better life by talent scout Terry Connor and crony Buddy Foster, but they're still being gawked at, asked tactless questions and exploited. The Hilton sisters' plight seems unbearably sad in spite of their pluck and throwaway lines about their deformity. When the prospect of love, and marriage, enters the picture, you know there's no throwaway line to save them.
Side Show is a co-production of the Playhouse and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which will host performances back East next spring. Bill Condon, who collaborated with Krieger on the film version of Dreamgirls, directs this "reimagining" of Side Show, which opened on Broadway 16 years ago and ran for only three months. This new cast is led by Emily Padgett and Erin Davie as Daisy and Violet, respectively, with Manoel Feliciano as Terry, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy and David St. Louis doing the best of the vocal belting-out as the sisters' protector, Jake.
The Hiltons' physical conjoining is not disturbing—they appear to be no more than standing very close to each other. But it's what you don't see—what's on the inside—that gnaws at you. When Terry fantasizes in Act 2's "A Private Conversation" about loving and dancing with a "separated" Daisy, the effect is haunting. Side Show doesn't always deliver that degree of poignancy, but it does not rely, even in the first-act freak show scenes, on shock value.
Still, you'll want to take a deep breath when it's over.
Side Show runs through Dec. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse. $15 and up. lajollaplayhouse.org.
Forever Plaid: Paid Tidings: The wholesome revue of 1950s-style harmony singing returns—again. Opens Nov. 22 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
The Grapes of Wrath: An adaptation of the classic John Steinbeck novel about a farming family that flees the dustbowl of Oklahoma in hopes of a future out West. Runs from Nov. 19 through 24 at the Sheila & Hughes Potiker Theatre at UCSD. theatre.ucsd.edu
Mercy Killers: A one-man play about a Libertarian who has to come to terms with his opinions about healthcare when his wife is diagnosed with cancer. The onenight-only performance happens on Nov. 22 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest. mercykillerstheplay.com
Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge: Christopher Durang's musical spoof of A Christmas Carol supposes that Gladys Cratchit is an angry, boozing, modern American woman who happens to have 21 kids. Opens Nov. 22 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
Tribute: A 51-year-old actor's who's lived a carefree life learns he has leukemia and reconnects with the son that he's long neglected. Presented by Sullivan Players, it runs through Nov. 23 at Swedenborg Hall in University Heights. facebook.com/sullivan.players
The Violet Hour: It's 1919, and a young publisher must to decide whether to release his friend's novel or his mistress' memoir. Enter a mysterious, future-seeing, paper-spewing machine. Through Nov. 23 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
The Laramie Project: The theatrical reaction to the 1998 hate-motivated murder of gay teen Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. Through Nov. 24 in the Don Powell Theatre at SDSU. theatre.sdsu.edu
Little Shop of Horrors: A meek flower-shop employee nurtures a mysterious plant that becomes a human-devouring monster. Music! Death! Fun! Presented by Pickwick Players, it runs through Nov. 24 at Off Broadway Live in Santee. pickwickplayers.net
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window: A struggling writer and his struggling-actor wife deal with their problematic marriage amid politics and personal anguish in Greenwich Village. Through Nov. 24 at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre at UCSD. theatre.ucsd.edu
Suds: The Rockin' '60s Musical Soap Opera: The story of a young woman looking for love in a Laundromat frames a soundtrack of '60s hits. Runs through Dec. 1 at Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
The Gift Teller: Playwright, director and screenwriter Stephen Metcalfe's update of A Gift of the Magi gets a world premiere. Through Dec. 8 at Scripps Ranch Theatre. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Skinless: The opening play of Moxie Theatre's ninth season follows a student who bases her dissertation on an obscure horror and sci-fi writer and gets more than she bargained for. Through Dec. 8 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. moxietheatre.com
Venus in Fur: A writer-director who's created an adaptation of the novel Venus in Furs gets the tables turned on him by an actress who insists on reading for the lead role. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through Dec. 8 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
Side Show: A musical based on a true story about conjoined twins and circus-freak-show performers Violet and Daisy Hilton, who find fame as a vaudeville act and search for true love. Through Dec. 15 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!: This'll be the 16th year that the green one will slink onto the stage at The Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. "Fah Who Doraze," indeed. Through Dec. 28. oldglobe.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net