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For Alice Ripley, body-swapping is ‘Next to Normal’

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.

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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?’”

Apparently so. She got her Actors’ Equity card doing a children’s show at the La Jolla Playhouse and, in 2007, starred in a production of Michael John LaChiusa’s “Little Fish” at the Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood. Her first Broadway show was " The Who’s Tommy” in 1993 and her other Broadway credits include “Sunset Boulevard” in 1994 and “The Rocky Horror Show” in 2000. Her Broadway performance in “Side Show” with actress Emily Skinner, playing Siamese twin Violet Hilton to Skinner’s Daisy, garnered the women Tony Award nominations in 1998.

Ripley’s hiring in “Side Show” sprang from seeing her play ingénue Betty Schaefer in “Sunset Boulevard,” says “Side Show” director Robert Longbottom. “She brought so many colors to what could have been just a cardboard outing, I could see that was a red-blooded person there. She doesn’t freeze-dry a performance. She keeps living it. I knew it was inevitable that somebody would find another definitive role for her that she could really pour her soul into.”

Enter composer Tom Kitt. A fan after seeing Ripley in “Side Show,” Kitt says he appreciated her work even more after he accompanied her on piano at a small holiday concert. “She has one of the most unique and beautiful instruments I ever heard, so when ‘Next to Normal’ took shape, the dream I had was maybe Alice could play this role,” says Kitt. “There were no auditions. We just called her.”

She originated the role of Diana first at Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway, then in a revised version at Washington, D.C.'s, Arena Stage, which then traveled to Broadway in April 2009. “Next to Normal” will have played on Broadway for nearly two years when it closes in January 2011.

Ripley was succeeded onstage in New York by Marin Mazzie and says she then took full advantage last summer of a workspace she rented “as a gift to myself.” Some of the time, she says, she’d just stare at the walls, other times sleep or watch the Empire State Building change colors. But she also worked on paintings and mixed-media pieces as well as her own music. She plays guitar in a band called Ripley, has made several recordings and this summer played a few New York club dates before rehearsals started again. She would like to do the same in Los Angeles during the show’s run but says, “Let’s see if I have the energy after playing Diana eight times a week.”

The actress says she’s been approached about future work, but “I have blinders on now. I’m focused on Diana. It takes its toll on you offstage and, after a while, you do want to move on to another role. But I’m still figuring Diana out, and I don’t know if I’ll ever finish. I still feel there’s a lot of detail left to be filled in.”

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