'Next to Normal' star, Alice Ripley, rocks onstage and off
Alice Ripley -- "I get to meet the students from high school and college. Those are the people I'm out here for. They inspire me and I think it's mutual."
Alice Ripley, with Jeremy Kushnier, brings her Tony Award-winning role in "Next to Normal" to the Benedum Center beginning Tuesday.
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For the Goodman family, life is anything but normal.
On the surface, Diana and Dan are a loving couple with a lovely family. Daughter Natalie is an accomplished pianist who's trying to secure admission to an Ivy League college.
Son Gabe is a hunky teen who's referred to by his sister as "Superboy."
But so much in "Next to Normal," which opens Tuesday at the Benedum as part of the PNC Broadway Series, dances on the edge of darkness.
"In general, the show is having a similar impact on audiences no matter where we do it," said Alice Ripley, who won the 2009 Tony Award for best actress in a musical playing Diana on Broadway.
"The audience feels as if it's been taken on a roller coaster ride, and in the end, feels uplifted after such a cathartic experience."
Fasten those seat belts, it's a bumpy ride. Diana has battled bipolar/depression issues since the kids were babies and Dan (Asa Somers) struggles to maintain a somewhat happy, somewhat normal household. He yearns to reconnect with the confident, creative woman he married, in a time before a family tragedy triggered Diana's problems.
Set to a rock score with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, "Next to Normal" won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as the Tony for Best Original Score. It was nominated for seven other Tonys including Best Musical, but lost out to "Billy Elliott."
Director Michael Greif, who guided it from workshop to off-Broadway to Broadway, was a Tony nominee as well.
With song titles such as "Who's Crazy/My Psychopharmacolgist and I" and "Aftershocks," this is not a show for young kids. The subject matter is disturbing, the language, frank.
And yet it is a study in hope.
"They are trying to put the 'fun' back into functional, the Goodmans," Ms. Ripley said. "The show ends on an upbeat note."
No matter where she goes, people have asked her about Diana's big decision in the final act.
"What happens after the end, happens," she said. "I have to imagine that after that, more healing happens."
The cast of "Next to Normal" is small, only six players. Besides Ms. Ripley and Mr. Somers, there is Emma Hunton as Natalie, Curt Hansen as Gabe, Preston Sadleir as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and Jeremy Kushnier as Drs. Madden\Fine.
Ms. Ripley earned her first Tony nomination playing a circus oddity in the 1996 cult favorite, "Side Show," but inhabiting the role of Diana earned her the greatest acclaim. It's a challenge playing someone experiencing the wrenching gamut of fear and frustration, both physically and emotionally.
"Not that I become her; it's just a magic trick. But my body goes through what she goes through, as does my psyche."
Her time between shows is spent exploring the tour cities on foot, generally taking it easy and "doing whatever I need to do to stockpile my energy" because "Diana is more demanding than most."
Ms. Ripley, who fronts her own band, RIPLEY, recently released what she hopes will become the first in a CD series of acoustic interpretations of the classic rock she loved growing up.
"Daily Practice Volume 1" features tunes such as Carly Simon's "Anticipation," The Eagles' "Take It Easy" and even something from The Boss.
"As a teen, 'Thunder Road' was always in my head."
She brings one of her two Taylor guitars on tour, sneaking in practice time while letting go of Diana for a while: "Halfway through the week, when I'm feeling good, I'll go in my dressing room, pick up my guitar, and play."
Although she has taken guitar lessons off and on, she likes exploring the sound on her own: "Teachers want to teach you theory, and that's fine, but when it comes to rock and roll, you only need three chords.
"There's something comforting about that."
The tour began in Los Angeles in November and continues through July. Taking such a special project on the road was important to her, she said.
"I grew up in a small town in Ohio where we didn't have a lot of opportunity to see this kind of a show," she said. "I get to meet the students from high school and college. Those are the people I'm out here for. They inspire me and I think it's mutual.
"I like being the one who gets to bring something like this to a smaller town or neighborhood."
Correction/Clarification: (Published April 5, 2011) The song "Anticipation" was written by Carly Simon. The wrong songwriter was given in a preview story for "Next to Normal."
First Published April 3, 2011 12:00 am