Side by Side by Side

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

Like indulgent parents, the folks at the Kennedy Center poked around the musical-theater store and emerged with the biggest, most elaborate present they could find. So, sure, the jumbo package is on the cumbersome side. And as for the assembly, well, it is hard to figure out exactly how they're supposed to fit together.

But hey, isn't it the thought that counts? Three musicals -- that's right, three -- make up the sprawling, mix-and-match evening the center calls "Broadway: Three Generations." They're condensed versions of three shows, in point of fact. The production, efficiently glue-gunned together by director Lonny Price and his technical team, features a heap of memorable show tunes, a stable of accomplished young Broadway actors and a passel of versatile dancers.

Not to mention Shirley Jones.

One-third of the night is a creamily melodic if sometimes under-sung excerpt from the 1930 "Girl Crazy." Another third is just plain gorgeous (the controversial 1997 "Side Show"). And yet another third is . . . "Bye Bye Birdie." Which has been wedged between the other two because, because -- let me think, keep your shirt on -- I've got it! Because it's from 1960!

A more nuanced explanation for the linkage of the musicals, other than that they were born in 30-year increments, I wish I could provide. Staged to kick off the Kennedy Center's season-long look at composers and lyricists of recent vintage -- and to celebrate the reopening of the Eisenhower Theater after its $18 million facelift -- the show offers musical lovers a well-stocked smorgasbord. Even if it never serves up a completely solid conceptual framework.

(Just curious: Why end an evening devoted to theater tunesmiths with the Oscar-winning "Lullaby of Broadway," a song that eventually became part of the stage musical "42nd Street" but was introduced in a movie?)

The Eisenhower, its somber dark wood and worn red carpeting replaced by lighter tones and new blue carpets, is given over to quasi-concert versions of each of the boiled-down shows. Wade Laboissonniere's colorful costumes handsomely outfit each show, and James Noone's incidental set pieces easily glide on and off. But the most vital fixture onstage is the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by James Moore, which gives each of the scores a heartiness of flavor that theater audiences rarely experience.

The classy, well-put-together Jones, known better for musicals on film ("The Music Man," "Oklahoma!"), is the evening's mistress of ceremonies, on hand to fill in plot details and occasionally, kid the audience.

"So, ya ready for another one?" she asks, about two hours and 15 minutes into the show, when patrons are settled in after a second intermission. The wait is more than worthwhile, for the final leg provides the most enthralling moments. As the Siamese twins of "Side Show" -- which deeply divided audiences with its intimate exploration of an uncomfortable subject during its short Broadway run a decade ago -- Lisa Brescia and Jenn Colella provide what is hands down the night's most luminous turn: a rendition of composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell's "Who Will Love Me as I Am?"

The presentation of 11 "Side Show" songs comes across as a seamless distillation of the musical and its profoundly moving portrait of Daisy (Colella) and Violet (Brescia) Hilton, sisters recruited for the midway who yearn for the peaks and valleys of normal life. Price and Tom Briggs, who adapted it for the Kennedy Center, guide the segment with so much heart and energy that the concert feels as if it were a Broadway re-audition.

Choreographed with dynamic authority by Josh Rhodes, the production slithers from "Come Look at the Freaks," its dark "Willkommen, Bienvenue"-style prologue, through impassioned duets and production numbers. Ken Billington's ultra-dramatic lighting neatly heightens the emotionality. As Terry Connor and Buddy Foster, hucksters who mean both to help and exploit the sisters, Max von Essen and Bobby Steggert ably convey the characters' ambiguous textures. And Michael McElroy is nothing short of captivating as Jake, the protective carnival hand who watches worriedly from the sidelines.

"Side Show" is supposed to represent an inventive new breed in the three waves of songwriters the production asserts define Broadway over the past 80 years or so. (During each third of the show, photographs of composers and lyricists from that general era descend from the ceiling.) In the interest of suggesting a sequential historical development of the Broadway musical, Jones explains that "Side Show" is an example of a "sung-through" musical -- one performed virtually free of dialogue. It's a term being used loosely, for "Side Show" does include dialogue.

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