11/20/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

First Nighter: Revised Side Show Musical Still Side-Tracked

Broadway musicals have such a hold over their most ardent aficionados that pre-opening buzz can reach ear-splittingly high decibel levels. Side Show, which began its Manhattan-bound trek in La Jolla with a subsequent Kennedy Center stop before arriving at the St. James, certainly got that kind of chatter going 19 to the dozen.

Word was that director Bill Condon, who worked beneficially on the Dreamgirls and Chicago movie adaptations, had revised the 1997 Bill Russell-Henry Krieger cult tuner (shuttered after 91 performances) so it would finally confirm its lasting mettle.

Let me tell you something about my reaction to the first version. On entering the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it played, I looked at the stage and saw bleachers. Knowing that the musical focused on conjoined carnival-draw twins Daisy and Violet Hilton as well as other sideshow attractions, I told my companion the cast would enter, sit on the bleachers and tell us in the audience members that we were the freaks. Which is, to some extent, what happened.

In other words, Side Show is one of those productions about which I had a sinking feeling even before the first note was sung. So how do I feel about Condon's tweaking and twiddling now that he's jettisoned the bleachers and instead begins the proceedings with a reference to Tod Browning's flick Freaks, in which the real Violet and Daisy appear?

Side Show is different, yes, from what I recall its being 17 years back, but if it's better, the improvements are only marginal. The performances are strong. Emily Padgett as the extroverted Daisy and Erin Davie as the introverted Violet are up to the standards set by Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, though the twins are now played with a generally softer tone, with more vulnerable longing. Ryan Silverman as Orpheum Circuit manager Terry Connor and Matthew Hydzik as performing coach Buddy Foster -- Terry falling for Daisy, Buddy for Violet -- lend considerable weight to the show. So do David St. Louis as road manager Jake and Robert Joy as Sir, the exploiting side show owner.

David Rockwell's take on carnival surroundings has the hoped-for sleaze-glitz quotient. Costumer Paul Tazewell does snazzy work with the costumes (occasionally, mirror-image outfits for D&V). Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer are up to their estimable lighting standards, and Peter Hylenski's sound is also of the expected quality.

But those -- as well as Charles G. LaPointe's period wigs and Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey's effects for the so-termed freaks -- are just trimmings on a libretto that still doesn't provide 100 percent believability.

Giving a chronological account of the twins' abusive treatment in the sideshow, to their liberation from that servitude thanks to Terry's machinations, to their success on the vaudeville stage, Condon concentrates on the love affair Daisy has with Terry and the love affair Violet has with Buddy. (The Hiltons' childhood in England and early performing is skipped entirely.)

Condon also includes for a kind of suspense, the possibility that the sisters will decide to undergo risky separation surgery. Of course, anyone who knows anything about them knows what their ultimate choice will be. Condon also never includes Daisy's talent as a violinist and Violet's talent as a saxophonist -- certainly two unfortunately missed applause-reaping opportunities.

Poking around for a plausible through-line, Condon never quite lands on consistency. Though arriving with a shady past, Terry seems genuinely intent on helping Daisy and Violet maximize whatever performing abilities they have. But no, eventually he's a stinker and a slinker-offer. Buddy evidences true love for Violet, but lurking in the shadows is a tall fellow who's the embodiment of a secret about the tap dancer's real romantic inclinations. Initially, Jake is just a loyal friend, but in a second-act twist, he reveals more on his mind.

And then there's the score. There isn't much to the songs, although from time to time choreographer Anthony Van Laast elaborates on them with rousing dance routines of a kind in which the Hilton sisters would probably never have participated.

This much can be said about the songs. Both act one and two end with the strongest of the Russell-Krieger '90s-style power ballads. As the first act finale, "Who Will Love Me as I Am?" asks the question not only Daisy and Violet have on their individual minds but that many, if not all, patrons have asked themselves as one time or another. At the second act finale -- well, penultimate juncture -- "I Will Never Leave You" is a promise many, if not all, ticket buyers would like to hear from a pursuer.

(FYI: Those anthems don't have much in common with the saccharine ditties Daisy and Violet intone on easily accessed YouTube footage.)

Whereas Russell and Krieger have the smarts to give Daisy and Violet those strong numbers, they fall down on the job when concocting heart-felt act-two power pleas for Terry ("Private Conversation") and Jake ("You Should Be Loved"). Silverman and St. Louis come up with the vocal dynamism to make it seem as if Krieger's mundane melodies and Russell's uninspired lyrics have something, but the impassioned renditions are absolute examples of the results being attributable to the singer not the song. Russell's lyrics remain uninspired throughout, it's sad to say.

Side Show verdict #2: As they used to say in the '20s and '30s and often on the midway, "Nice try, but no cigar."