No longer the `Side Show'

ARTS

Alice Ripley performs in `Songs for a New World' and headlines rock band

May 10, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Alice Ripley thinks of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World as "postcards from different corners of his mind."

A Tony Award nominee, Ripley is one of five Broadway performers who sing in a concert version of Brown's first musical, the 1995 revue Songs for a New World, produced by Signature Theatre at the Music Center at Strathmore Wednesday and May 17.

With settings as disparate as Fifth Avenue and the North Pole, the songs assigned to Ripley exemplify the range of "postcards" in this work by the Tony-winning composer of Parade and The Last Five Years.

"Just One Step" is a number sung by a fed-up Manhattan matron poised on the ledge outside her apartment. "Surabaya-Santa" is a Kurt Weill parody sung by a discontented Mrs. Claus. "Stars and the Moon," the show's most popular song, is about a woman who traded her chance at true love for wealth and comfort. And Ripley's favorite, "The Flagmaker, 1775," is "a rock song [about a wife] waiting at home making flags, sewing, trying to keep her sanity, while her husband is out fighting the Revolutionary War," she explains.

Ripley, who lives in Los Angeles, which is also home to Brown, has taken advantage of their proximity to "sneak in a couple of private rehearsals" with the composer, whom she has known for a decade. "This material is challenging," she says. "I'm really excited and grateful for the opportunity to take the time to work on the music."

Best known for creating the role of Violet Hilton, one of the conjoined twins in the 1997 Broadway musical Side Show, Ripley has performed in the Baltimore-Washington area many times, beginning with her portrayal of Fantine in a touring production of Les Miserables in the mid-1980s.

More recently, she delivered a high-octane depiction of Amy, the jittery bride in the 2002 Sondheim Celebration's production of Company at the Kennedy Center, as well as a hilarious portrayal of a movie mogul's brash mistress in Ken Ludwig's Shakespeare in Hollywood at Washington's Arena Stage in 2003.

Although the California-born, Ohio-raised performer has several other significant Broadway credits in addition to Side Show, Ripley, 43, remains so closely associated with the Siamese-twin musical that she and her co-star, Emily Skinner, continue to be mistaken for each other. This might not be surprising if Side Show had been a hit (which it was not) or if Ripley and Skinner resembled each other out of costume, wigs and makeup (which they do not).

"It happens on a regular basis. I keep thinking it's going to end, but it doesn't," Ripley acknowledges. And, she points out, the ways that she and Skinner react to these incidents is another indication of how different they are. As the middle child of 11 in a blended family, Ripley says she used to have little patience with being called by someone else's name. In contrast, if someone called Skinner "Alice," "she'd sign my name and walk away."

However, Ripley - who shared her Tony nomination with Skinner - has come to terms with being confused with her co-star. Indeed, she regards it "as a compliment. She's an incredible talent." The pair, who truly are like sisters, according to Ripley, have appeared in two other shows together - James Joyce's The Dead and Company - and also recorded three albums of duets.

A versatile recording artist, Ripley is a songwriter as well as a singer. She released a solo album, Everything's Fine, in 2001. In December, her rock band, Ripley - which she calls "an extreme version of me" - released its first album, Outtasite, featuring her husband, Shannon Ford, on drums.

Currently, she's collaborating, as lyricist, with composer Michael Roth on a performance piece tentatively titled Landscape the Tar Roof. Written in five movements and focusing on the theme of faith, each movement contains a "story about somebody who hits bottom," she says.

And, though she probably wouldn't turn down the right role in the right Broadway musical, for now Ripley is savoring the rewards of putting pen to paper herself. "I get to have a say about what the piece says," she explains. "That makes me tremble with excitement after having sung somebody else's words all these years."

Show times for "Songs for a New World" at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, are 8 p.m. Wednesday and May 17. Tickets are $21-$50. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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