First, Ripley wowed us last summer in the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration production of Company, stealing the show with her rapid-fire, over the top rendition of "Getting Married Today." Now she is striding the Kennedy Center boards again in a powerful, one-woman performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday, marvelously overcoming the banal material and making us fall in love with her all over again. (Ripley also has to deal with a technical challenge that might confound other performers; see below.)
She stars as Emma, a British hat designer who relocates to the States, splitting her time between New York and Los Angeles and weaving through a variety of failed relationships. There's no book to the piece: It's just a song cycle with lyrics by Don Black, more reminiscent of a cabaret show than musical theater. The lack of exposition gives Ripley little to work with in fleshing out the character, a woman in search of herself. She is on her own, willing the audience to like the shallow character who goes through men like Kleenex. To this end, Ripley used her expressive face and a seemingly inexhaustible variety of vocal inflections, creating depth where there might otherwise be a void.
Sharp-eyed theatergoers might wonder where the orchestra is. Well, it seems that the Kennedy Center mistakenly sold the seats over the Eisenhower Theater orchestra pit, leaving no room for the 10 musicians and conductor Steve Marzullo. Set Designer Edward Pierce managed to tuck them in behind the stage; the sound is fine but, as a result of this placement, Ripley and Marzullo cannot see each other. That's especially critical in a show that must contain 100 little cues as songs start and stop. Closed-circuit television monitors strategically hidden on the stage allow Ripley to see Marzullo, and he is able to watch her onscreen, as well. Ripley gets through it all without a hitch -- to the relief, no doubt, of director Marcia Milgrom Dodge.
First produced in London in 1982 and in New York three years later, Tell Me on a Sunday was originally one half of Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance -- the song part, obviously. This is not the composer's best collection of tunes; only a few, such as the lovely, lyrical ""Unexpected Song," are memorable. Emma hits New York full of hope in the first song, "Take That Look Off Your Face," but is already disillusioned with love and cynical by the second song, "Let Me Finish," which Ripley imbues with fire and determination. This performer has substantial range, her voice a dynamic instrument that conveys drama and emotion even as it deals with technically demanding passages; she appears to scale several octaves during "Unexpected Song," and stops the show. The satirical "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad," which skewers Southern California values, is perfect for the devilish aspects of Ripley's personality to shine. The title song is a fairly low-key ballad, but Ripley gives it a mournful tone that pumps it full of emotion and draws the audience closer. In the gently jazzy "English Girls," Ripley gets playful as her character notes the advantages she believes English women have in dealing with American men.
The Emma depicted in the songs is defined almost totally by the men in her life, and she flits from one to another without much explanation. It takes a performer with innate charisma to make Emma tolerable. This production uses the "Americanized" adaptation of the piece with lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. created for Bernadette Peters (who won a Tony for the 1985 production). Producer Jeffrey Finn has said that he saw Ripley in Company here last summer and immediately offered her Tell Me on a Sunday, recognizing her potential to make the part her own. Ripley has covered her trademark blond tresses with a brunette wig that makes her resemble the Joan Collins of several decades ago. She sports a rich British accent tinged with just enough of a Cockney sound to keep the character down to earth. And she keeps on singing even as she is continually changing costumes onstage.
Pierce's striking set design is a series of diminishing, proscenium-like frames leading to a staircase and an infinite backdrop. The Manhattan skyline gives way to the HOLLYWOOD sign and palm trees as Emma's amorous adventures go bi-coastal, and props are moved in as needed. The set also augments Ripley's performance in more subtle ways. For instance, when she arrives in America and sings her first, hopeful tune, the skyline features fabled Gotham buildings; but when her idealized vision gives way to harsh reality, we see a rundown, industrial landscape.
The show runs just under 70 minutes. As of now, there are no plans for a tour with Ripley, although a new staging is being prepped for London. Even if this production does not have a life beyond Washington, it is an important chapter in the burgeoning career of Alice Ripley.