SIDE SHOW

Side Show

St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

Unless you act soon—and by soon, I mean within the next 2 weeks, Side Show will be the best show you’ve never seen. And that’s just sad. I had the privilege of seeing this excellent production several days ago, and its poignant spell is still with me.

Lead Cast: Erin Davie (Violet Hilton), Emily Padgett (Daisy Hilton), David St. Louis (Jake), Ryan Silverman (Terry Connor), Matthew Hydzik (Buddy Foster), Robert Joy (Sir)

Director: Bill Condon

Music: Henry Krieger

Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell

Additional Book Material: Bill Condon

Background:  The current Broadway production of Side Show is a revamped version of the original, which opened 17 years ago, on October 16, 1997. The show is based on a true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who rose from exploitation as freaks in a seamy side show to become Vaudeville stars. Although the original show received many positive reviews (New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it a “daring, enthralling production”), it closed on January 3, 1998, after only 31 previews and 91 regular performances. Sadly, history will repeat itself when the new Side Show closes on January 4, 2015, just 7 weeks after opening night.

I didn’t see the 1997 Broadway production, but I’m told by people who did that the new version adds several new songs and cuts others, and that the book has been reworked to include more exposition about the Hilton twins’ childhood in England.

The Production

I found this show absolutely riveting from beginning to end. The opening number “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the mood: the sets (by David Rockwell) are spare, often only suggesting the actual physical surroundings. The lighting (Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) effortlessly guides your eye to focus on what’s important in any given scene. There are some special effects—as when a costume change appears to happen by magic—that are amazing.

But it is the performances take your breath away. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, actresses who offstage don’t really look alike, convince us that they are physically identical—literally joined at the hip. In addition to the physical transformation, they also convey the twins’ very different personalities. Daisy (Ms. Padgett) is brash and flirtatious and dreams of stardom. Violet is more reserved. Their contrasting personas are illustrated in the song “Like Everyone Else:”

Violet sings, “I want to be like everybody else; to walk down the street not attracting attention.” Daisy yearns for fame: “I want to be like everyone else, but richer and more acclaimed. Worshiped and celebrated.” The stunning costume designs (by Paul Tazewell) underscore the idea of sameness vs. difference: Daisy and Violet dress alike, but in dresses that are mirror images of each other.

Because a “normal” life is impossible for the sisters, who have always been made to feel they are “freaks of nature,” only Daisy will get her wish. Once rescued from the exploitation of the side show by the handsome, smooth-talking Terry O’Connor, the girls achieve fame and fortune as Vaudeville stars. (Of course they are still being exploited, but with a higher standard of living).

I want to give a shout out to David St. Louis, who as Jake, the girls’ protector and champion (and who suffers unrequited love for Violet), is simply stunning in every scene he plays and every song he sings. I’m hoping that he’ll be recognized, along with Davie and Padgett, with a Tony nomination

Heartbreaking Moments

Side Show is ultimately a love story. Despite an often cruel and exploitive world, Daisy and Violet know that they will always have each other. While they do consider separation surgery, they are told that it is risky—that one or both might not survive. They realize that it is their connectedness that truly defines them and makes them special; that in a world where they are viewed as freaks, they are never alone. They are bound together in body and soul, by love.

Two emotional duets underscore the touching and profound love between Daisy and Violet: the first act closer, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and the last song in Act 2 (before a reprise of “Come Look at the Freaks”), “I Will Never Leave You.” If these plaintive songs don’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart.

From “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”:

Who will ever call to say I love you? Send me flowers or a telegram?

Who could proudly stand beside me? Who will love me as I am?

From “I Will Never Leave You”:

I will never leave you; I will never go away

We were meant to share each moment; Beside you is where I will stay

Evermore and always; We’ll be one though we’re two

For I will never leave you

Why the Side Show Must End

Why can’t this thrilling and touching show make it on Broadway? Part of the problem stems from the subject matter. When people hear the words “Siamese twins” and “freaks” they may mistakenly assume the show is somehow distasteful or upsetting. Other reasons are more mundane, having to do with the “business” part of show business. While the orchestra section was full for the matinee I attended, theatre staff they told me that ticket sales for the mezzanine were generally poor. When St. James Theatre owner Jujamcyn saw an opportunity to book a potential blockbuster new musical, Something Rotten (directed by Book of Mormon’s Casey Nicholaw), it turned its back on Side Show. As Side Show producer Darren Bagert told The New York Times: “We were persuaded to post a notice prematurely, in the middle of a holiday season ticket upswing. If there weren’t another show clawing at the door, I think we’d still be at the theater.”

When I spoke to several cast members after the performance, they were understandably disappointed that this high-quality, audience-pleasing production was ending too soon. Like Daisy and Violet, both the 1997 and 2014 productions of Side Show beseech us: “Who will love me as I am?”

So, in the words of Side Show’s opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks”:

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Right this way!

See the freaks! They are here! They are real!

They are all alive! Inside!

(But only until January 4).

Trivia: January 4, the date the current Broadway production will close, is the same date the Hilton sisters died (in 1969, at age 60).

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available on Playbill.com and at TKTS in Times Square. You can find detailed information about Side Show and other Broadway shows at BroadwayHelper.com

I urge you to see this amazing show before it’s too late. While the show’s website doesn’t specify any age recommendation, due to the mature subject matter, I would say leave the kids under 15 at home.

Show Website.

With Erin Davie.

Erin Davie

LOVE LETTERS

love letters

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.

Lead Cast: Candice Bergen (Melissa Gardner), Alan Alda (Andrew Makepeace Ladd III)

Playwright: A. R. Gurney

Director: Gregory Mosher

In a Nutshell: This 1988 play by A.R. Gurney was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Often revived with rotating pairs of stars, it was first performed at the New York Public Library, starring the playwright and Holland Taylor. The action unfolds as the two actors sit next to each other at a table and read a lifetime of letters written to each other, beginning in second grade and spanning 50 years, as the lifelong friends share their secrets, dreams, frustrations, joys, and heartbreak.

They say, “write what you know.” Gurney, who prepped at St. Paul’s and attended Williams College and the Yale School of Drama, knows about WASPs—their schools, social obligations, and parental expectations. Love Letters, one of his best known and most successful plays, is perhaps the best example of his understanding of this rarified world. It is also a popular play among veteran performers, since, in the words of A.R. Gurney, it “needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.”

The Plot: Melissa and Andrew both come from wealthy New York families, but Melissa’s family ranks at the very top of the 1%. Their correspondence begins in the second grade, when the well-bred Melissa pens a thank-you note to young Andy. She writes: “Dear Andy: Thank you for the birthday present. I have a lot of Oz books, but not ‘The Lost Princess of Oz.’ What made you give me that one? Sincerely yours, Melissa.”

Andy’s response: “I’m answering your letter about the book. When you came into second grade with that stuck-up nurse, you looked like a lost princess.”

We learn that Melissa is an artistic, somewhat rebellious “bad girl” whose socialite mother drinks too much and marries too often. Andy is an ambitious, socially conscious good boy who feels obliged to please his father.

Melissa often complains about the writing process, imploring her young pen pal, “Now let’s stop writing letters.” For Andy, however, writing the letters fulfills a deep emotional need. The adult Andy explains: “I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing completely.”

So, through elementary and prep school, college, law school, summer vacations, World War II, marriage, parenthood, success and disappointment, Melissa and Andy keep on writing, sharing their lives through letters. When one of them inevitably hurts or angers the other, the slighted actor simply stops reading, leaving the other to plead in a vacuum, waiting for a response.

While Melissa and Andy never settle down with each other in the conventional sense, they do maintain a love affair of sorts, sharing a life together through a lifetime of letters.

The Performances: The bare bones description of Love Letters—two actors sitting at a table reading letters for 90 minutes—belies how completely engaging and moving the play is, especially as performed by Candice Bergen and Alan Alda. While many excellent actors have had successful runs in the play, I can’t imagine a better pair than these two. Bergen, still blond and beautiful at 68, has Melissa’s natural patrician good looks. And her timing and reactions to Andrew’s words are perfect. She subtly but effectively changes her delivery and demeanor as the play progresses, accurately mirroring Melissa’s transformation from a sarcastic 7-year-old school girl to a shattered, disappointed adult. And I have to say, she just broke my heart.

Alan Alda, always a naturalistic and believable actor, has the right native New York accent and somewhat nebishy manner that are well suited to Andrew’s upright, needy persona. Amazingly, at 78, he still retains a boyish charm that works well in Love Letters.

Trivia: Candice Bergen made her Broadway debut in Hurlyburly, directed by Mike Nichols. She was last seen on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. In 1958, at age 11, she appeared with her father (ventriloquist Edgar Bergen) on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life. Bergen was married to French film director Louis Malle from 1980 until his death in 1995.

Alan Alda has been nominated for the Tony twice: for Jake’s Women and The Apple Tree. Previous to Love Letters, he twice portrayed a U.S. senator: Arnold Vinick on TV’s The West Wing from 2004-6 and Ralph Owen Brewster in Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film The Aviator (Oscar nomination). Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo, the son of actor Robert Alda (Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo). Their adopted surname, “Alda,” is a portmanteau of ALphonso and D’Abruzzo.

Both actors are members of the Television Hall of Fame.

Should You Go? Yes! This Love Letters is a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience. If you’ve never seen the play, here’s an opportunity to enjoy a top-notch production. If you have seen it, you won’t want to miss Bergen’s and Alda’s pitch perfect performances. (Hey, when else can you see Hawkeye Pierce and Murphy Brown together on stage?).

Ticket Info: Discount tickets are available at Playbill.com, TKTS, and TDF (if you are a member). You can find discount codes for this and other Broadway shows at Broadway Helper.

Note: Sadly, this show just posted an early closing (December 14) notice. Originally, Bergen and Alda appear were to appear through December 18, with other actors to rotate into the cast into 2015.

Show Website

THE LAST SHIP

Last Ship Cropped

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.

Music & Lyrics: Sting

Book: John Logan & Brian Yorkey

Director: Joe Mantello

Choreography: Steven Hoggett

Lead Cast: Rachel Tucker (Meg Dawson), Michael Esper (Gideon Fletcher), Jimmy Nail (Jackie White, through 12-7), Sting (Jackie White, 12-9 through 1-10-15), Fred Applegate (Father O’Brien), Aaron Lazar (Arthur Millburn), Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Young Gideon/Tom Dawson)

In a Nutshell: The Last Ship has an impressive pedigree, coming to Broadway via a multi-award winning group of creatives. Sting, who wrote the score, is a 16-time Grammy winner who based the story on his childhood growing up in a small English ship-building town. John Logan (book) is an Oscar-nominated, Tony and Golden Globe winner. Brian Yorkey (book) has won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and more. The director, choreographer, and scenic/costumer designer are among Broadway’s finest. And the cast is a fine mixture of American and British pros. So why is this show struggling to stay alive?

The Plot: The Last Ship tells the tale of a young man, Gideon Fletcher, who abandons his home town, his loving girlfriend, and his bitter, dying father to explore a larger world and follow his dreams. When he returns 15 years later, on the occasion of his father’s death, he finds the town in peril, as the shipyard is about to close, and the girl he left behind engaged to marry a man involved in ending the town’s livelihood.

In the title song, the shipbuilders lament their impending fate: “For what are we men without a ship to complete?” It’s decided that they will band together to build one last ship to convince the shipyard’s owners to reverse course.

The Performances: Individually, many of the songs are hauntingly beautiful, especially “The Last Ship” and “Island of Souls”. Others are foot-stompingly rousing (“We’ve Got Now’t Else,” “Show Some Respect”). The talented cast, especially Jimmy Nail (a tough, craggy actor/singer who is quite well known in England) Rachel Tucker (another Brit, with a fiery presence and a gorgeous voice), and Broadway veteran Fred Applegate as the sassy, hard-drinking priest Father O’Brien, give it their all. And Shawna M. Hamic has a nice moment in Mrs. Dees’ Rant, the Act 2 opener. Some of the songs evoke a definite Kurt Weill feeling; others are more of an Irish jig. And the scenic design, with the hull of a ship in the background and lots of fog effects, enhances the troubled mood.

However, even with all of this going for it, as I exited the Neil Simon Theatre, the first word that came to mind was “ponderous.” Others have called the show “somber.” While there’s plenty of life in The Last Ship, there is also a good deal of death—of two characters, a love affair, and a town’s lifeblood. And there’s no happily ever after ending. At over 2 and a half hours, perhaps the show is just too much of a sad thing; it adds up to less than its individual parts.

The Sting Factor: According to The New York Times, this $15 million musical (a true labor of love for Sting) has been losing $75,000 a week since performances began Sept. 29. In a last ditch effort to “save a sinking ship,” Sting will play his rock star trump card, replacing his friend, veteran Brit actor Jimmy Nail, for 4 weeks at the Neil Simon. Sting’s presence, coupled with the usual Holiday season bump in Broadway attendance, will no doubt keep The Last Ship sailing through 2014. But once the show enters the annual doldrums of January and February, it will no doubt once again struggle to stay afloat.

You’ve got to give Sting a lot of credit: he’ll do almost anything to keep his baby alive. He gamely performed “Show Some Respect” with the show’s cast in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and soon he’ll be singing and dancing on the Broadway stage 8 times a week. (He has stated that he’d “show his rear end in Macy’s” if it would help the show, so that’s something to look forward to).

Sting

Trivia: Sting last appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Threepenny Opera in 1989. According to the NY Daily News, Sting is waiving his royalty payments (an estimated $10,000 per week) to help the show save money.

George Harrison contributed to Jimmy Nail’s 1992 album “Growing Up in Public.”

Should You Go? Are you a diehard Sting fan? Can you sing the complete lyrics of “If You Love Someone Set Them Free?” If so, hurry over to the Neil Simon while your idol is treading the boards. Even if you’re a moderate fan of his music, you’ll enjoy the show. (Or you could save yourself some serious money and just wait until the cast album comes out). If you really have your heart set on sailing on The Last Ship, best not to tarry; once Sting jumps ship on January 10, there’s a good chance the show will end up permanently moored at the dock.

Note: The show is recommended for audience members 13+.

Ticket Info:

Ticket Lottery: A limited number of $30 tickets (cash only) are sold for each performance, beginning 2-1/2 hours before curtain. Winners are drawn 2 hours before curtain. Limit one entry per person, two tickets max per winner.

The Neil Simon is a fairly large theatre (1,445 seats) and so is difficult to fill. The show is currently available on TDF (if you are a member) and TKTS, but this may change once Sting joins the cast. I just checked the Ticketmaster website and found many seats still available for dates when Sting will be performing. For example, during the popular Christmas week (December 23), seats in the center of the front mezzanine are available for $166.75. Seats further back in the mezzanine run $89.25 and $68.75. Orchestra seats for that date run $166.75 or a whopping $267 for “premium” seats. Playbill.com currently offers discounts through December 21, so it’s worth a try to print out the offer and take it to the box office.

You can visit Broadway Helper for a complete list of discount offers for The Last Ship and other shows.

Show Website.