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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
To cut right to the chase for those who read reviews mainly to decide whether or not to buy a ticket: This is the best new take on a musical that failed initially that you're likely to see in a while
The story still relies on our fascination with freaks of nature but the conjoined Hilton Sisters' rise to stardom has been beautifully and believably re-conceived by Director Bill Condon and librettist/lyricist Bill Russell. Composer Henry Krieger has come up with a whole bunch of catchy new songs. While that meant some of the original songs had to go, the show's big ballads, "Who Will Love Me As I Am?"and "I Will Never Leave You" are still thrillingly present. Though Daisy and Violet remain literally joined at the hip, there's nothing all that weird and hard to identify with about the emotional connection that helps them to triumph over repeated disappointments.
The two men who made them stars and loved them (but not enough to make that plaintive wish to be loves "as I am" come true) are more fully and understandably realized. Though Buddy's need to hide his true sexual nature has gone the way of the sordid Side Show life in which the Hilton twins grew up, he symbolizes all manner of secrets that can haunt any of us.
Not to downplay the excellent performances of the original Daisy and Violet (Emily Skinner & Alice Ripley), Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are right on the money in every respect. Dressed, made up and coiffed to twin-like perfection they actually look alike, even as they convey their personality differences. The flawless synchronization of their unfortunate, too close for normalcy connection is a marvel to behold — especially when they dance to Anthony Van Laast's snazzily choreographed numbers like "Ready to Play."
It's easy to see why romance starved Daisy and Violet fall in love with the fellows who rescue them from their Cinderella like freak show existence. Ryan Silverman's Terry Connor and Matthew Hydzik's Buddy Foster are pitch-perfect as the well-intentioned opportunists. They're also terrific song and dance men.
More standout performances are delivered by the other two men in the twins' lives. David St. Louis is fine as Jake, the girls' protector and the man who truly loves Violet. His soaring baritone makes Jake's "You Should Be Loved" a heart-wrenching show stopper. When the time comes for Norm Lewis, who played Jake in 1997, leaves his current star turn in The Phantom of the Opera, someone is sure to think of St. Louis.
Actually there's another man, the famous Harry Houdini, who briefly but importantly influences the sisters with advice on how to achieve privacy through self-hypnosis. Javier Ignacio, who also doubles as the one of the freaks, Dog Boy, adds yet another gorgeous male solo voice with his "All In The Mind."
That opening number insures that the more psychologically solid book hasn't forfeited the show's, dark circus-y flavor. That scaffolded opener is just one of David Rockwell's eye-popping stage pictures, all made more vivid by lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Costumer Tazewell also double-dazzles with his costumes for the assorted freaks. The second act's opening number is yet another dazzler — its witty "Stuck With You" and "Leave Me Alone" reminiscent of, even if not quite on a par with, the Loveland episode in Follies.
The St. James is a large house but happily, the Side Show Orchestra and Harold Wheeler's orchestrations do full justice to the subtleties and sophistication of the score. And you can actually hear Bill Russell's smart lyrics.
Broadway can now boast three splendid musical revivals ( Cabaret ). Musical theater pros may not make them like they used to, but they sure know how to turn something old into something newly invigorating.