‘Sideshow’ and ‘Lion King,’ Magical Musicals at Kennedy Center

It’s hard to think of two shows more different from each other than “Sideshow” and “The Lion King,” now settled in for longish runs at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre and Opera House, respectively.

One is a resurrection and renovated redo of a legendary 1997 Broadway show about outcasts and outsiders, in particular two sisters joined at the hip who rise from sideshow, carny attractions to vaudeville stars. The other is the enduring Broadway musical version of the popular Disney cartoon, in which brilliant director Julie Taymor not only resurrects the story — along with Elton John and Tim Rice’s music — but offers an entire dream of Africa at its most optimistic. The one show is attempting to rise out of its early critically approved but audience-sparse past. The other remains an unstoppable entertainment phenomena.

But the two shows share something: both are embraced passionately by their audiences, although the audience for the two shows are probably very different, too. But each show had more than its share of electricity coming not only from center stage outward but out from the audience, which were often noisy with spontaneous applause and whistles in the first case, and vocal delight by the youngsters—and their adult companions—in the second.

These kinds of occurrences in the theater—call them happy disturbances in the theatrical field—are always there, of course, but in these two instances, the infectious passions generated by the shows, setting, stories and music became impossible to ignore, unless you arrived minus curiosity, empathy, heart, brain and soul. It’s what makes live theater so precious when it becomes rich in a series of moments that you want to take home with you as a keepsake.

This is especially true in the best sense for “Sideshow,” which has new songs, a new more literal and dramatic concept—thanks in large part to new director Bill Condon, the Oscar-winning director of the film version of “Dreamgirls.”

“Sideshow” tells the wrenching, but also oddly romantic tale of the Hilton Sisters, Violet (Erin Davie) and Daisy (Emily Padgett), the alluring co-joined twins and carnival attractions when we first meet them. That’s when the sinister, twisted side-show master named Sir invites us, at the top of things, to “Meet the Freaks”—the bearded lady, the three-legged man, reptile man, tattoo girl, half-man, half-woman, fortune teller, dog boy, Venus di Milo, the world’s tinest cossack woman and man, the pin cushion and Jake, the cannibal king.

The stars of the midway, the Hilton Sisters, who sing in keening voices like sirens , and who will for two bucks let you see where they are joined at the hip

This is depression-era America, where two guys from the vaudeville circuit. Hustlers and salesman and agents and dancers named Buddy Foster and Terry Connor are enchanted and see them as potential stars of the vaudeville circuit. “We are very well connected, “ they tell the sisters. “So are we,” the sisters say.

So, the fairy tale comes true in huckster nation. They become stars, they fall in love, they go to Hollywood, except … that they’re not like everybody else … they’re exactly like everybody else.

The notion—cliché-like—that the sisters are us, as are their boon companions from the sideshow, just happens to be true. For instance, were the sisters not the joined sisters, this could pass for a classic story-boarded and story-book romantic musical, and musically, you haven’t heard impassioned ballads like “I Will Never Leave You,” “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “You Should Be Loved” in many, many years.

Yet the first, sung in and out of tandem by the sisters, is loaded with irony and yearning, of the kind that is the hallmark of most romantic joy and friction—don’t leave me, leave me alone, I’m so alone, I want to be free, I love you, I hate you, that everyone can hear their own heart bludgeoned, flying, battered and bathed, in them.

“Who Will Love Me as I Am” is practically an anthem for the sisters and their friends on the midway, but separate from that, is also a grand musical expression of the hope we all carry around to our dying day. “You Should Be Loved” is sung by Jake, who accompanies the girls on their journey, and is a not-quite surprising declaration of love for Violet and Jake is a double-outsider, being an African American in Jim Crow America. Those songs are so affecting—with incisive, empathy-loaded lyrics by Bill Russell and music as an expression of the heart by composer Henry Krieger—that the audience all but levitates with feeling at their climax.

The show often dips in an almost nostalgic ways with bows to Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.” The hair-raising “Meet the Freaks” is a little bit of an echo of Joel Grey in “Come to the Cabaret,” as is the ménage-a-trois song, “1 + 1 = 3”.

Here’s a special bow to Emily Padgett as Daisy, and Erin Davie as Violet: it’s a triumphant pairing, together and apart, voices a little different, emotions very different. They’re the big stars of this show, but there’s room also for David St. Louis to shine as Jake and the total stellar cast. I would bet too that the audience in the end is an equal star in this show—there’s a definite feeling of the audience celebrating itself here. Come to the Sideshow, indeed.

“The Lion King” is Julie Taymor’s signal triumph, before she met a handsome but difficult stranger named Spiderman. Even if you’ve seen the show before, the entrance opening of the show with stately giraffes and animals sidling down the aisle, and all the puppetized creatures of the jungle, along with live actors take the breath away.

This isn’t about outsiders, but all the members of the lion kingdom, celebrating the circle of life, the traditions of their life, in spectacle and stunning costumes and lighting—this is Taymor—who dazzled in cinematic versions of Shakespeare—at her totemic best.

The story and characters—the noble lion king, his son, his vile, affected brother, plotting to dethrone his brother along with his followers, the scary, lurching, leering hyenas, the female pride—make for just the kind of coming of age story for children, not yet coming of age.

The actors embodying the roles have presence: L. Steven Taylor’s human swagger as Mustafa, Jelani Remy’s high-spirited Simba, Nia Holloway’s appealing Nala, Patrick Brown’s sneering, whiny Scar, the meercat and the warthog. They are vivid and lively, but so are the puppets making magic in the landscape.

Watch the children and youngsters in the audience. They give in to entrancement and enchantment almost immediately with the first bird-wielding puppeteer. We sat next to a young girl, whose heart seemed to stop as she watched Simba ascend the throne, her hand to her mouth, eyes wide.

She told her companion this: “The first thing we have to do, really, is come back and see this.”

I might add a note to self: “The first thing I have to do as soon as I can is come back and see “Sideshow”.

— “Sideshow” is at the Eisenhower Theater through July 13. “The Lion King” is at the Opera House through Aug. 17.


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