Side Show at Altarena Tells Story of Vaudeville Duo Daisy and Violet Hilton

The 1997 Broadway musical Side Show is loosely based on the lives of real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (above and below).

The Altarena Playhouse is currently presenting Side Show; a semi-biographic musical based on the life of Daisy and Violet Hilton.

Daisy and Violet are perhaps more widely known as the glamorous conjoined twins who fueled lurid imaginations and provided fodder for tabloids up until their deaths in 1960.

Given the show’s misleading title, many might anticipate a show that barely rises above an actual side show or expect a lurid stage rendering of an anthology of anecdotes derived from tabloids; that’s your prurient mind playing tricks on you.

Side Show as directed by John Maio is nothing short of spectacular; it will exceed all of your expectations and levitate you out of your seat.

Every show needs a villain and The Boss, remarkably played by Elmer Strasser, fills that role.

The Boss runs a two-bit freak show — actually less than two-bits because he charges only a dime: "pennies a peak" is his slogan — he keeps his captive attractions in line with psychological oppression and when that doesn’t work, he turns to brutality.

His psychological ploy is best illustrated in his signature song "The Devil You Know is Better than the Devil You Don’t," a catchy musical tune that attempts to assure his captives that given their abnormalities, theirs is the best of all possible worlds and it is best to avoid losing even a bad thing.

To counter The Boss’s defeatist pitch, a couple of up-beat vaudevillians, Terry and Buddy, convince Daisy and Violet that there is great opportunity for them beyond their cave of shadows; this is where the show shifts into warp drive.

It would be an understatement to say that hometown talent Johnnie Rivard plays Buddy; Johnnie is Buddy and he is Buddy with all the pizzazz you’d expect from a major theater house.

Rivard launched his career on the Encinal High School stage under the aegis of Gene Kahane and Bob Moorhead; his trajectory has been meteoritic and exponential.

When Rivard performs the song and dance number "One Plus One Equals Three" (this writer actually taught Rivard his math), he tears up the stage; his performance will toss you back in your seat, better have a head rest waiting and a good grip on the arms of your seat. Rivard is brilliant, he needs no Klieg Lights.

Choreographer Bobby Barnaby Bryce has honed the dance numbers to lively precision and Music Director Greg Zema rattles the timbers.

The show continues through Feb. 23. Call 523-1553 or visit www.altarena.org for tickets.

Jeffrey R Smith is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

The Hilton Sisters