ALAMEDA -- The rags-to-riches story of talented young people or enterprising entrepreneurs overcoming tremendous odds to make their dreams come true has proved to be a popular format for stage and screen. The heartwarming story of courageous, sympathetic characters battling dire circumstances to achieve success is at the heart of the American dream.

The Altarena Playhouse now brings the ultimate "overcoming tremendous odds" tale to local audiences with its production of "Side Show," running Jan. 17 to Feb. 23. With book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, who also wrote the score for "Dreamgirls," the Depression-era story follows Violet and Daisy Hilton from England to America and to their big Hollywood break. But, what makes this rags-to-riches story so unique is that the sisters are conjoined twins.

"I've pitched this show to multiple theaters over the past five years," said director John Maio. "They loved the music but worried about the complexity of the show and the content. It takes place during the 1930s with the Siamese twins in a circus. It's not exactly politically correct, and some theaters didn't think it would be palatable for their audiences. But just the opposite happened when TheatreWorks in Palo Alto did the show in 1998. They had to add performances."

According to Maio, the show is really about human nature, about how we judge people or are judged ourselves.

"I think the show makes the audience look within themselves and examine how they treat people," Maio said. "It's very much about love and self-acceptance."

One of Maio's first challenges was finding two actresses with strong singing voices to play the twins.

"The show is almost completely sung, so I really needed these incredible voices, but I also had to find two actresses that were similar in size, particularly height. So many talented people came to auditions, but I needed two actresses whose voices blended well and who were physically similar."

After initial auditions and three sets of callbacks, Maio found his perfect pairing in Caroline Schneider (Daisy) and Mia Fryvecind Gimenez (Violet).

Based on the true story of the Hilton sisters, "Side Show" follows the twins as they become successful circus performers and go on to fame and fortune on the Broadway stage. While Daisy has achieved her dream, Violet still yearns to have a family and settle down. But, unlike sisters who want different things out of life, these two cannot go their separate ways.

"We both long to fulfill our dreams but at what price?" said Gimenez, who acknowledged the challenges to connect physically and emotionally with another actress.

"I've had to learn Caroline's nuances and body language since I can't always see her eyes," she added. To help the process, Gimenez invited Schneider to her home to do everyday things like make sandwiches together while joined at the hip.

"Now it's become almost organic," Gimenez said. "I can feel her get tense in a scene or respond differently to the music, and it changes what I'm feeling."

The two actresses also had to learn a variety of dance routines including tap, waltz and tango, which Gimenez says was a "huge challenge" at times.

"Fortunately, we have a wonderful choreographer in Bobby Bryce, who has managed to move our 16 cast members beautifully across the postage-stamp-size stage," Maio said.

"We're also lucky to have Greg Zema as the musical director and a very committed cast and team of designers. I'm very excited that the Altarena agreed to do this inspiring show that will be even more powerful given the theater's intimate space."

FYI
"Side Show" runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. from Jan. 17 to Feb. 23 with one 8 p.m. Thursday performance on Feb. 20. For tickets, call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org.