The cruelty of exploitation, just like the public's prurient interest in oddity, is boundless. Marry the two, and you have the backdrop to the real-life tale of conjoined twins and vaudeville stars Daisy and Violet Hilton in Side Show, the Broadway revival at the St. James Theatre.
The poignant, revamped Bill Russell/Henry Krieger musical, inspired by the sisters, posits the universal desire to be loved against the voyeuristic instinct to view differences as less than human. The tender twins challenge such prejudice. "Come Look At the Freaks" sets the stage for the tawdry carnival act the Hiltons, quiet Violet (Erin Davie) and sassy Daisy (Emily Padgett), call home.
Home, indeed. The owner of the carnival, abusive monster Sir (Robert Joy), claims to "own" the women, so it's thanks to a meeting with talent scout Terry (Ryan Silverman) and dance instructor Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) that the girls taste freedom. Soon, they are bona fide stars of vaudeville, singing and dancing charming numbers garbed in Paul Tazewell's lovely costumes.
But their more profound desire, to be seen as individuals with distinct identities apart from their abnormality, is a challenge. Especially when romantic elements and issues of medical separation are raised. "Who Will Love Me as I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You" are heartbreaking numbers.
It's more than ironic that the one man to love Violet as she is -- and is, at least in this telling -- helpful in their liberation from Sir -- is black. Jake (David St. Louis) is passionate in his protective commitment to the twins and his deep, unshakable attachment to Violet. It's also Harry Houdini (Javier Ignacio), the master of escape, who suggests a way for the girls to achieve some kind of privacy.
For the most part, kindness, sans gawking, is exhibited from the very people most apt to be exploited, the so-called freaks, calling most encounters into question.
Joined at the hip, Davie and Padgett deliver stellar performances, as does the entire cast, while the soaring score enhances both their desperation and possibilities. The thoughtful Side Show is a sobering reminder of the humanity we all share.
Serving humanity is the subject of Rodgers & Hammerstein's lesser-known musical Allegro, now playing at the CSC. The John Doyle-directed production has no sets or props; it's a stark stage, with his trademark: Actors play various musical instruments.
It opens in 1905, with the birth of Joe Taylor, Jr., and follows his life through the 1920s and '30s. Joe (a perfectly cast Clayborne Elder) is the son of a small-town doctor (Malcolm Gets) who hopes his son will work alongside him.
We meet Joe's childhood sweetheart Jennie (Elizabeth A. Davis), a manipulative woman who values profit over people, much like her businessman father (Ed Romanoff). That puts her at odds with Joe's mother (Jessica Tyler Wright), who believes her son should treat people in need, not cater to the whiny rich in a lucrative big-city practice.
It's the Depression, and the stakes are high. In this dark side of the American dream, the ethical set up is clear: Some serve the greater good; others chase after fat paychecks as the sole reason to work. Songs like "Money Isn't Everything" underscores the point.
A speaking chorus comments on the actions, addressing both the characters and the audience. Allegro, followed on the heels of Oklahoma and Carousel; unlike them, it wasn't a hit and has rarely been revived.
The plot -- an ordinary man coping with the competing concerns of vocation vs. economics -- is relatable, and the cast is uniformly good. Allegro doesn't have the grand theatricality of Rodgers and Hammerstein's famed shows, but in its quiet way, it delivers an important message.
Photo: Andrew Eccles