”Side Show” and ”Disney’s The Lion King” provide two worthwhile theatrical experiences at Kennedy Center

 “Come Look at the Freaks,” goes the grand opening number in the musical Side Show. And it’s quite possible such a exploitative, sensationalistic call might dissuade a right-thinking person from seeing this show. Particularly anyone who’s ever been made to feel like a freak.

“Whatever you are, don’t you want to be normal?” asks one unknown well-heeled woman to the show’s lead characters, the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. To which Violet offers the best retort possible: “Whoever you are, don’t you?”

Emily Padgett as Daisy Hilton, Erin Davie as-Violet Hilton, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster Photo by Joan Marcus

Emily Padgett as Daisy Hilton, Erin Davie as-Violet Hilton, Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster
Photo by Joan Marcus

Truth is, everyone has felt like a freak to some extent or another, and at some point everyone has aspired to be “normal” — whatever that might mean in particular context, whatever that might take. Which is a key reason why Side Show, at least as presented in the revamped version now playing at the Kennedy Center, is something that ultimately everyone should see. Another reason is the fact that the play is based in reality. It’s a reassuring reminder that as bad as it might be, today’s American entertainment industry is at least slightly more evolved than its precursor nearly a century ago, when there was less respect for anything straying from a puritanical vision of human nature.

Bill Condon helms this rework of the 1997 musical by writer Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger, the man behind Dreamgirls. The original production didn’t last long on Broadway, in part because the premise of the show was a tad too icky for some, particularly in the way the twins’ romantic — and sexual — relationships were — or really were not — explained. In Condon’s hands, essentially everyone who gets to know the Hiltons falls in love with them — from the freaks in the traveling side show to the men who make them vaudeville stars — but the girls are too self-aware to fall easily for anyone themselves. “I Will Never Leave You” is the incredibly moving song the sisters sing to each other, about each other. Even though they do often dream of being truly alone and physically separate — in other words, to be normal — they always stick with the common bond they’ve had since birth.

Emily Padgett as the outgoing Daisy and Erin Davie as the more introverted Violet offer exceptional portrayals of their characters, in-synch but not in-unison. Anyone who’s a twin in real-life can identify with their struggle and smile at their success in finding their characters’ own identities, despite all odds. Matthew Hydzik gives an equally complex portrayal of Violet’s lover Buddy, and David St. Louis as Jake, the girls’ protector since childhood, will initially stun you with his vocal range and power, but ultimately woo you with his refined sense of male tenderness and ego. All told, Condon has lined up a stellar supporting cast, with actors playing the show’s freaks who offer glimpses of human normalness underneath their outrageous oddball exteriors, the handiwork of costume designer Paul Tazewell. There are several big numbers in Side Show, and several points at which you’ll find yourself getting emotional, both charmed and teary-eyed.

The Hiltons’ plight to find acceptance, love and happiness may not follow the typical Hollywood script — though, it should be said, this production moves and looks as flawless and flashy as anything else on Condon’s Hollywood resume, from Chicago to The Twilight Saga. But anyone who gives it a chance — even, if you’ll pardon the expression, a sideways glance — will be moved.

Side Show (starstarstarstarstar) runs to July 13, at Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $45 to $130. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

IF EVER YOU NEEDED A REASON TO see a theatrical production at the Kennedy Center, right now you’ve got two. There’s the Side Show main event, and then the mane event, otherwise known as Disney’s The Lion King. The two shows have little in common, of course, other than being dazzling and lavishly rendered theatrical spectacles — and sharing one juicy bit of history. Both musicals, after all, competed at the 1998 Tony Awards. Side Show won none, The Lion King six, including for Best Musical, besting Side Show. The show is one of the most beloved and successful musicals of all time, and is still going strong. Judging by the reaction from a recent performance at the Kennedy Center, no doubt countless children have been turned on to live theater as a result, and ain’t that something?

Julie Taymor’s revolutionary work in overall direction and costuming deserves every accolade and every child’s audible delight it’s gotten over the years. If Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s story, based on the original animated film and following the adventures of lion cub Simba on his way to becoming head of the jungle, doesn’t quite reach the same awe-inspiring feats, it at least doesn’t detract from your enjoyment of the whole spectacle. It starts strong, as we meet all the wild creatures, dramatically costumed puppets controlled by humans singing about the “Circle of Life.” But to my mind it ends even stronger, as Simba (a charming Jelani Remy) reconnects with his slain father Mufasa (a mighty L. Steven Taylor). It’s hard to keep a dry eye just hearing the moving spiritual “He Lives In You,” but you’ll certainly want to keep them wide open as members of the ensemble bring Mufasa back to life and larger than ever, through the magic of stagecraft — as well as the wonders of Donald Holder’s lighting design.

The Lion King may not have reinvented the theatrical wheel, so to speak, but it did make it bigger and brighter. And it still lives on.

Disney’s The Lion King (starstarstarstar) runs to Aug. 17 at Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $40 to $195. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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