Tonight, Tony-winner Alice Ripley (Next to Normal) begins a new series of intimate concerts based on her 2011 CD of spare guitar covers, Daily Practice. Armed with her six string and powerfully expressive voice, she (and some surprise guests) will be appearing at Don’t Tell Mama January 9 & 30 and the Laurie Beechman Theatre January 16, 22 & 24.
If your image of a music theater diva with a guitar is Julie Andrews singing “I Have Confidence” down some Austrian street, than Ripley’s forays into pop might come as a bit of a shock. But if you’ve followed her career than you know Ripley has always been that rare Broadway performer with a rocker’s soul. Never content being just a sweet throwback to golden age ingenues, she tears into even classical theater songs and acting moments with lacerating emotion, idiosyncratic articulation and raw guts; it’s as if Barbara Cook raised Janis Joplin. Even in her daintiest roles, there’s something modern bubbling beneath the surface that is pushing to erupt. Think of the shy Violet finally keening “Where is mine!?” in “Tunnel of Love” from Side Show or her no-nonsense Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard seeming like some straight-talking alien visitor from another musical. It’s no wonder she won the Tony for her performance as the bi-polar suburban mom in Next to Normal; at last here was a show that needed a rock sensibility, something messy and bare and contemporary.
Ripley comes by her rock bonafides legitimately; check out her band “Ripley” or her tour of duty in Tommy or her hot drummer husband (I’m just saying). I know some people suggest that she can be too raw, too on the edge vocally but I think it’s great to have Ripley out there forging her own path, a distinctive voice in a music theater world that could afford to be jolted a bit. And, honestly, don’t we crave a little danger when we go to live theater?
Watch a great example of Ripley interpreting music theater through a rock lens in this clip from one of her 2011 Daily Practice concerts (correction: the video is from 2010). In the first selection on the video, she sings “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables with just her guitar. It’s a strange and lovely reworking of a much performed classic that somehow feels absolutely right for the long-suffering character who sings it…