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For Alice Ripley, body-swapping is 'Next to Normal'

At each performance of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical, the actress becomes an everyday mom facing an extraordinarily stressful situation.

November 21, 2010|By Barbara Isenberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — In a rehearsal room several floors above 42nd Street, actress Alice Ripley had just finished crying her way through a particularly heartbreaking scene in the musical "Next to Normal." Still sobbing, she started thinking about what she was doing, and, she says, "I can't believe I said yes, I would do this again. What was I thinking?"

Getting ready to portray bipolar suburbanite Diana Goodman on tour as she had on Broadway, Ripley knew what she was in for. "Playing Diana feels like I'm walking out into traffic," she says. "You know that the bus is going to hit you, but you just have to step out in front of it anyway."

So after leaving the Broadway production in July, the 46-year-old performer is preparing to again inhabit Diana, the role that won her a 2009 Tony and which she has played since its first readings and off-Broadway performances. Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and three 2009 Tony Awards, "Next to Normal" opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Nov. 28, launching a 36-week tour in the U.S. and Canada.

"Next to Normal's" first song lyric may be, "They're the perfect loving family," but within moments, any semblance of normality is gone. Homemaker Diana, furiously making sandwiches that soon cover not just the table but the floor as well, is the fulcrum on which a yearning husband, a troubled daughter and a demanding son balance precariously.

In Los Angeles, as in New York, Ripley will be onstage in nearly every scene, sometimes lusty, sometimes comatose, plus singing a good percentage of the show's nearly 40 songs. Like the musical itself, she's alternately funny and spirited, angry and sad as she rollicks through a rock score punctuated with lyrical ballads and gentle melodies. At one point singing poignantly of the life she once had — "the manic, magic days and the dark, depressing nights" — she takes on pills, therapy and electric shock treatment to try to hold both her family and herself together.

"Diana represents a real woman, with all the ups and downs that come with that," says the blue-gray-eyed actress. "It's so realistic, it seems like a play to me. I forget that I'm singing. I got it right away, and I knew it was something I was ready for. And right for."

"Next to Normal" director Michael Greif says Ripley "wants to go to the unexplored, surprising and unexpected place, and she really approaches it like a great actor. She's brave. What it's all about for her is examining the truth of the character and the truth of the character's journey."

To go along for Diana's ride, Ripley read books on bipolar behavior and studied the drugs and other ways the illness is treated. "When I was doing my research, I saw how much I didn't know and how I could never know what I needed to know," she says. "You take a handful out of the grab bag on the Internet, use what you think might be true and, since you're an actor, you can pretend and make it work."

Ripley spent considerable time studying Diana's internal and external worlds. She initially made intricate collages and diagrams about pills and their side effects, about Diana's range of emotions and even the Goodman family's possible Seattle neighborhood. Reviewing Diana's drugs, for instance, helped her early on to see "where I would need to be at the beginning of the show. What drugs have I been taking ? How has that affected me? What did I do this morning and last night, pill-wise?"

Asa Somers, who will play husband Dan Goodman at the Ahmanson, says Ripley "is focused like a laser. She eats, sleeps and drinks her character when she's onstage. Sometimes there's a fine line between where she ends and the character begins, because she's made it so much her own."

She similarly channels Diana on and off during an interview. Sitting in a diner, sipping peppermint tea, she is the first to admit she's obsessed with her role. When she's playing Diana, she says, "I live her. My whole day is spent polishing my lens and focusing on what I have to do when I get to the theater." It probably helps that her husband, drummer Shannon Ford, plays drums and percussion in "Next to Normal's" onstage band.

Ripley's portrayal doesn't end after her performance either. She clearly appreciates how audience members — some bipolar, some not — often wait to speak with her at the stage door or send her letters telling her their personal stories and how the show affected them. "People who are bipolar look at Diana, relate to her experience and feel relieved that somebody is speaking for them," Ripley says. "Part of the frustration of being bipolar is people don't understand what it feels like."

That magic moment

Born in San Leandro, Calif., she was raised and educated in Ohio, the middle child of 11. She was already taken with singing when, at 14, she saw a production of "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well" and, "it was, like, 'Wow. I could do that. I could definitely do that. Do you think somebody would let me do that?'"

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