DIVA TALK: Chatting with Next to Normal's Alice Ripley, Plus Betty Buckley at Feinstein's

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Next to Normal's Alice Ripley, Plus Betty Buckley at Feinstein's
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Alice Ripley
Alice Ripley

As one of the many who have enjoyed watching Alice Ripley become a leading player in the New York musical theatre scene, it's especially gratifying to report that the gifted singing actress — whose Broadway resume includes Side Show, Sunset Boulevard, Les Miserables, The Who's Tommy and James Joyce's The Dead — is currently offering her most powerful performance yet in the thoroughly moving Off-Broadway musical Next to Normal at Second Stage.

Ripley has been involved with workshops of the Tom Kitt (music)-Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) musical for the past few years; she even debuted the beautiful "I Miss the Mountains" at her Town Hall concert with Emily Skinner in 2006. Ripley, in fact, has had such confidence in Next to Normal that she and husband Shannon Ford have relocated to New York (they recently purchased a house in Long Island) after spending a few years in Los Angeles. "I wanted to show my faith in the show, and I really wanted to be here for the show," Ripley says. "I really wanted it to go through my whole [being], and it's working. It definitely is having an effect on me. It's been a very intense experience, and I'm glad to say that the show feels manageable now. It feels like I can deliver it, get out of the way, and remain intact at the end and feel energized by it as opposed to being devastated by it. That's how it was for a few weeks there."

Ripley plays the mammoth role of Diana, the manic-depressive wife of Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) and mother to Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) and Gabe (Aaron Tveit). After years of a drug-induced existence, where she experiences neither life's highs nor lows, Diana tries to find happiness, at first without the aid of medication and later through more drastic methods. While researching the role, Ripley says, "I did everything that I could. I definitely did a lot of homework, reading up on the subject matter of the show — books and online research. Also, I'm drawing from my mother's side of the family. Diana's story is in me personally. Even though I don't have the same story. . . the bloodline of what she goes through is definitely in my family."

Alice Ripley in Next to Normal.
photo by Joan Marcus

Ripley describes Diana as "the most vulnerable person in any room. In that way she is very much like my mother. [That's] a nice way of putting it," she says with a laugh. "[Diana] is the life of the party, a graceful life of the party, completely lovable . . . and the person that will get under the table and smash the china piece by piece, which is something I witnessed in my childhood. Diana throws the cutlery across the room and instantly regrets it, but the moment of thinking, 'Maybe I shouldn't do this,' doesn't occur to her. She is very impulsive, but at the same time, completely lovable." When asked her own views on medication versus more traditional psychotherapy, Ripley pauses and says, "[Next to Normal] has strong statements that it makes about certain subjects, and I am aligned with them. I'm very much kind of a hard-nosed self-healer. That doesn't mean that I won't take an antibiotic if I really need it, but I try to be careful about the choices that I make. I put my faith in myself first when it comes to my health. That doesn't mean that I don't need help, but it just means that there are certain things that I can do on a daily basis to prevent illness. If I can do that, then sometimes I can avoid it. But then, if you're really sick and you need somebody to help you, then you need somebody to help you. But in general I think that I am kind of a hard-lined conservative about my health in that I believe that I trust myself first." Ripley, whose powerful and rangy belt is used to dramatic effect throughout Next to Normal's pop-rock score, says the role has "not been without its challenges. I've definitely climbed a couple of mountains along the way, and happily I'm on the other side of all of those things. It was a real trick to figure out how to do what you're always asked to do in a musical, which is to balance the dramatic action with the technique [of singing]. In a show like Side Show, that was definitely a challenge. This makes everything else I've done seem easy, in that sense at least, in that the dramatic intensity of the show never lets up. If I have a fight with my husband and I throw the silverware across the stage, I have to remember that I can't really yell at him. I have to keep a gate on the follow-through of the action in order to then be able to keep my [vocal] technique together for later on in the show and the next day and the next day and the next day. That's been a real challenge to figure that out, and I think that we have figured it out. I probably speak for the whole cast in that because I'm not the only one who goes through that kind of an experience onstage in the show."

Ripley says working with Michael Greif, best known for his Tony-nominated direction of Rent and, more recently, Grey Gardens, has been "a dream. He's so loving and kind — generous, considerate and maybe even too careful of everybody's feelings in the room. Just like any director that you work with, there's a filtering thing you go through as an actor, where you figure out a language and you figure out the dance and how to relate to each other. That happened very quickly with Michael. I instantly adored him."

Greif, Ripley says, attends every performance and waits at the top of the stairs post-curtain. "We all run up at the end of the show, and he's waiting up there, and his face is like a light bulb all-aglow with happiness," says Ripley. "He's proud of us. He still gives us notes, and I love that. I love getting notes — that's a nice compliment."

Ripley also has nothing but praise for her co-stars and the entire design team, which boasts Spring Awakening's Tony-winning lighting designer Kevin Adams. "He's done a great job," Ripley says. "The lights in a show are often taken for granted, like a band at a wedding. If a band at a wedding is bad, everybody complains about it, but if they're good, nobody says anything. To me, the lights of any show I do [are] always kind of the secret ingredient to my performance. It informs the emotion, especially in this piece."

About working on the spectacular three-tiered set designed by Mark Wendland, Ripley says with a laugh, "I did have a collision with the set at one point that was an accident. Luckily, I have a really hard head and I wasn't injured! I have worked on some scary sets, so I'm used to … trusting [the scenic designer] that he knows what he's doing and that everything is where it's supposed to be and is going to be where it needs to be at the time it needs to be there. You just kind of trust. And, it is a wonderful set. It's like a big jungle gym, like a playground for the imagination.

Ripley with Brian d'Arcy James
photo by Joan Marcus

"When we walked into rehearsal the first day," Ripley continues, "they had a mock-up of the steel set in the rehearsal room. . . . It's like when your parents set up your bicycle for you on Christmas Day — I mean Santa! Of course, I mean Santa, not your parents. It's like somebody's been doing homework just for you, so that when you arrive you've got this special thing waiting for you. That was really great to have that during rehearsal. You have to get the timing right of how you're going to go up and down the stairs and what's moving and what isn't moving and where you are in relation to the audience."

[SPOILER ALERT] Through the course of the show, Diana's relationship with her husband is severely tested, and by the show's end she decides to leave the marriage in an emotional scene that is played beautifully by both Ripley and d'Arcy James. Ripley, however, believes that this is not the end of their relationship. "My story is that she comes back to him," Ripley says. "I think she goes away for a while. She gets her own pad, and she cries and eats pizza and does whatever she needs to do for as long as she needs to. But I definitely see her coming back because she loves Dan. She really loves him, and they have a history together. That means something to her. They've built something together, and [there is] also her daughter. Diana wants to give up something for her daughter and give to her. I don't know what the arrangement would be, but I see them coming back together as a unit — the three of them, somehow. I believe that Diana has this grief that needs to go through her and, once she allows it to go, things look different from where she stands with her mental health and her marriage and her relationship to her daughter, her relationship to everything, I guess."

Ripley says it's only been within the past week or so where she has been able to become energized rather than drained by the demanding role. "I think that all during rehearsals and previews, I was wondering if I was ever going to get to that point of feeling energized by it, which is what you're always aiming for," she says. "When you're an actor, you're just a cog in the machine of this bigger creative piece, but you're a moving cog. You have to be energized by it because if you're not, you're not going to last very long. I think that, in rehearsals, it felt like we all took a big bite of this piece and we were chewing and chewing and chewing. I kept waiting for the point where it would be digested. That's a really bad analogy, but . . . [now] it feels manageable. I keep talking about it, because I'm just happy. It's been a pretty recent development. It's like, 'Oh, I can deliver Diana and deliver the piece and sort of get out of the way of it and, at the end, feel energized.' It feels good to have gotten there."

With the success of such Off-Broadway-to-Broadway transfers as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spring Awakening, there have been rumors swirling about a possible Broadway run for Next to Normal. At this point, Ripley says, "I'm really glad that there are rumors, but [for now], that's all they are. I mean, I would love to have a job. That would be really great, and if it were this job, I would be so pleased. I have been grateful from day one to be involved with this piece. I think there is an incredible amount of integrity [here]. . . . I think the piece is beautifully written. I think it is a true piece of musical theatre. I also think it's a true rock opera. From day one at Second Stage, you could see everybody in the room [focusing on] Tom [Kitt] and Brian [Yorkey], the people that wrote the piece — they all decided they wanted to serve the piece. Maybe it sounds naïve or maybe it doesn't sound realistic, but to me that's what I always want to do. I always want to serve the piece. So, at the age of 44, I've gotten better and better at choosing the pieces that I want to be involved in, based on that."

When she's not bringing life to other people's music, Ripley creates her own songs, which have been preserved on two wonderful solo discs, "Everything's Fine" and "Outtasite." Songwriting, however, sometimes takes a backseat when she's working in a show. "There are only so many creative gallons to the day," Ripley explains, although she does feel ready to write another group of songs. "They very well might be written on a new instrument," she adds. "I've been playing drums for a couple of years, and I have this dream that I would be a drummer in a band. Who knows? Maybe I'll make that happen. My husband's a drummer, so it kind of wafted off of him. I've snagged some of his drums and got some free lessons. It's really, really fun and just completely different from singing. . . It really makes your job easier as a singer when you're more in touch with the rhythm. It's a healthy medium, and it's fun, and it's really loud."

Although she's keeping her date book open should Next to Normal have a longer life, Ripley does have a concert scheduled at the Kennedy Center April 11 with her former Side Show co-star Skinner. Ripley says that her friendship with Skinner has only deepened over the years. "When we worked together on Side Show, we were [together] eight hours a day. When you spend all that time every day in rehearsal with somebody sweating on you, with you spitting on somebody else, at the end of the day you tend to go, 'See you later!' You don't really dream about hanging out together afterwards. I think that the years that have gone by since we did that show have allowed us to become real friends. I think we're enjoying it even more. . . .I really respect her very much, and I think the world of her talent. I'm really glad that we're friends." But, for now, Ripley is focusing on playing Next to Normal's Diana, a role for which she has received rave reviews. The New York Times said, "This tale of a haunted housewife [is] beautifully played by Alice Ripley," while Variety exclaimed, "The beating heart of the musical and the chief reason it remains absorbing is the emotional integrity both Ripley and d'Arcy James bring to their characters." Ripley is also proud of her performance saying, "I feel like I'm doing my life's work with this. I feel like I've waited a long time for a role like this. I also feel like the community needs this show. They might not know it yet, but as a member of the community, I need it. I need something where I can connect to the audience members and connect to the material. Without giving the story away, I do say that the piece is a chance for people to come together and grieve in public. When you grieve on your own, it's one thing, but when you grieve [together], it's something else. That's a tradition that we don't really do anymore. We've gone through an awful lot in the last two presidential terms, as a country, and a lot of it is being stuffed away. I personally think that live theatre is supposed to be a place for people to connect and to deal with things. I'm finding that is not just my personal experience but the experience of the audience… especially the people that keep coming back over and over.

"It feels great because I wanted to do this when I was 14 — this acting as a job. Along the way I've had my doubts as to whether or not I made the right choice. Usually the doubts don't last for more than five minutes, but with this [show] I can really say, 'I'm doing the right thing, and I'm also serving the community.'"

(Next to Normal plays Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, through March 16. Tickets are available by calling (212) 246-4422 or by visiting www.2ST.com.)

BETTY BUCKLEY at Feinstein's at Loews Regency
Betty Buckley's newest cabaret program at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, "Then and Now," is an embarrassment of riches. How could it not be when the 70-minute set — directed and superbly paced by Richard Jay-Alexander — draws from Buckley's two new recordings on the Playbill Records label, the joyous, exuberant and life-affirming "Betty Buckley 1967" and the emotionally stirring, soul-lifting "Quintessence"?

Buckley, who is playing the posh nightspot through Feb. 24, is in terrific form and is offering some of her most remarkable cabaret work to date. She opens her show with an ethereal rendition of the Alan and Marilyn Bergman/Sergio Mendes ballad, "So Many Stars," and from there she proceeds to impress with one spellbinding interpretation after another.

Betty Buckley

From "1967" we get a tongue-in-cheek, "One Boy"; a riveting, soothing and, perhaps, definitive version of The Fantasticks' "They Were You"; the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me" that builds to a powerful belty climax; and "Quando Calienta El Sol" that is, simply, thrilling. From "Quintessence" we're treated to a wild reworking of Oklahoma!'s "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" — "This is our 'Pimp My Ride' version of 'Surrey,'" Buckley jokes; Susan Werner's "The Man I Used to Love" into which Buckley pours her voice and soul; and the pop hit "Get Here" which, in itself, is a master class in song interpretation. Among the show's new treasures are Paul McCartney's "Blackbird"; Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," which Buckley delivers with a touching sincerity; and Abbey Lincoln's little-heard "Throw It Away" that is also brought to full emotional life by Buckley's unbeatable combination of dynamic vocals and superior acting skills. Here, she's not simply acting or living the song onstage, she has somehow become one with the lyric.

I was lucky enough to catch Buckley's show on Valentine's Day, which featured an extra treat: a medley of "You're Nearer," "If Ever I Would Leave You" and "My Funny Valentine." Once again, she proved a song could find no better home than in the repertoire of Betty Buckley.

(Betty Buckley plays Feinstein's at Loews Regency, located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street, through Feb. 24. For reservations call (212) 339-4095.)

Have you heard the great radio ad for the upcoming Lincoln Center Theater revival of South Pacific? On Tuesday night I came home from work and was about to shut off the radio (it keeps my hyper dachshund Gilligan company during the day) when the SP ad began featuring the vocals of two-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, who has been cast as Nellie Forbush opposite the Emile de Becque of Paulo Szot. O'Hara sounds so beautiful singing "A Wonderful Guy" that I literally muttered, "Wow," when I heard her golden tones. I'm now even more excited for this Broadway revival to begin. (Previews of South Pacific commence at the Vivian Beaumont Theater March 1 with an official opening scheduled for April 3; for tickets visit telecharge.com or www.lct.org.)

Tony Award winner Victoria Clark and Aaron Lazar, who were both part of the Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza, will host the March 10 Monday Nights, New Voices concert. The 7 PM concert — produced by composer Scott Alan — will spotlight the talents of Kimberly Chesser, Marisa Dargahi, Leslie Henstock, Addi McDaniel and Sara Weiss. The evening's guest composer will be Jeremy Schoenfeld, who will accompany the performers on material from his theatre/pop songbook. The musical director will be Barbara Anselmi. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located in Manhattan at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $12 music charge and a two-drink minimum; for reservations call (212) 255-5438.

Tony Award winner Barbara Cook has titled her upcoming show at the Cafe Carlyle, Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You. Cook will perform her new show March 4-April 12. The famed singing actress will be backed by Peter Donovan (bass), Jim Saporito (drums) and musical director Lee Musiker (piano). Cabaretgoers can expect to hear such tunes as Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in His Arms," Rodgers & Hart's "Where or When," Burton Lane's "Old Devil Moon," Peter Allen's "Harbour," Charles Wolcott and Ray Gilbert's "Sooner or Later" and John Bucchino's "If I Ever Say I'm Over You." The Café Carlyle is located within The Carlyle Hotel at 35 East 76th Street a Madison Avenue. For reservations call (212) 744-1600.

Two concerts of the Andrew Gerle-Eddie Sugarman-Maryrose Wood musical revue Up will be presented in March at the Zipper Factory. David Schweizer will direct the March 17 and 31 concerts, which will feature the talents of Mark Jacoby, Michael Marcotte, Kate Rockwell and Lynne Wintersteller. Show time each night is 9:30 PM. Up features music by Gerle and lyrics by Gerle, Sugarman and Wood. The revue is described as such: "An injured baseball player imagines getting back to the big leagues . . . A girl finds the courage to be herself on a reality TV show . . . A recording superstar confronts the loneliness of the spotlight . . . A woman from a poor neighborhood remembers the public library that fueled her dreams and changed her life." The Zipper Factory is located in Manhattan at 336 West 37th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Tickets, priced $20, are available by calling (212) 352-3101 or by visiting www.thezipperfactory.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Today’s Most Popular News: