TONY-nominated actress and pop musician Alice Ripley is about to become a mother for the third time. Sort of.
When "The Who's Tommy" pop musician is unveiled this weekend at Hollywood's Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, it will mark Ripley's third appearance as one of the show's principal players: Tommy's reputation-obsessed mom, Mrs. Walker.
FOR THE RECORD:
'The Who's Tommy': In Thursday's edition of The Guide, an article about "The Who's Tommy" at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre gave an incorrect phone number for the box office. The correct number is (323) 461-0663. —
Also in the cast are Acid Queen Nona Hendryx (a Grammy nominee and former member of Patti LaBelle's R&B group LaBelle); titular deaf, dumb and blind kid Aleks Pevec (from the L.A. cast of "Wicked"); and Tom Schmid as Tommy's father Capt. Walker.
Ripley herself was enlisted without an audition. "Sometimes a job comes to you and you didn't ask for it. Your work in the past hires you and that's nice," she says. "I couldn't resist for a couple reasons. For one, it's 'Tommy.' "
The Who's mythical, mystical magnum opus, " 'Tommy' shatters the form of musical theater," according to Ripley, who adds that she admires its ability to simultaneously retain the best techniques of classical musicals.
"It's driven by action, and the songs advance the action," she says. "With a lot of contemporary musicals, the songs are like a calling card; the action stops for them."
Though this production marks her return as the musical's matriarch, Ripley says it won't be a replay. Her first chance to play Mrs. Walker came unexpectedly as part of 1993's original Broadway cast. Then a twentysomething understudy, Ripley took over when Marcia Mitzman, the intended Mrs. W, temporarily bowed out.
"That was exciting," she says. "It was my first Broadway show, I was new to New York, and I was getting some notices as this understudy who's actually pulling it off." As a result, her performance owed a lot to natural exuberance. "My relationship to the role was a big party . . . . Now I'm doing more homework."
Before her arrival in Los Angeles, the at-times New Yorker had been re-reading Henrik Ibsen's “A Doll’s House” for psychological insight, and delving into the history of London's military hospitals during World War II, as well as investigating contemporary views on autism. "I've been paying more attention to the libretto, the motivations and colors that make up Mrs. Walker," she muses.
And though she's familiar with the 1975 movie through which Ann-Margret famously cavorted, that production won't be part of her research. "The Ann-Margret take was one take," says Ripley.
After working with director Des McAnuff and The Who's Pete Townshend on the Broadway production, which upped the British quotient, Ripley sees Mrs. Walker more within the context of the character's save-face-at-all-costs culture.
"[Ann-Margaret's Mrs. Walker] was a more American idea, of having your sexuality right out there in the open and using it blatantly. It almost seemed a little loony. Mrs. Walker's not. She's very sane and calculated." As Ripley gets ready to take the stage this time around, "I keep picturing Jackie O," she says.
With such a nuanced performance, Ripley's hoping to help illuminate what she sees as the deeper themes of "Tommy." "Some are obvious and some are not," she figures. Tommy as a Jesus figure, sure that's an easy one, but there's also the timeless quality of family dysfunction, and Ripley's surprisingly generous diagnosis there.
"Parents are destined to sin against their kids; it's inevitable," she says. "As is narcissism and the human condition. Everyone has their ego and their ambitions. Life happens in between."
And when life goes awry because, say, your parents commit murder before your very eyes and then play mind games about it, Ripley would rather you didn't judge too harshly.
"A likable character isn't one who does nothing wrong," she continues. Instead it's the compassionate portrayal of our darker human impulses that Ripley believes most satisfies both artist and audience.
"It's easy to make a character likable," she says. "Just tell the truth."
'THE WHO'S TOMMY' WHERE: The Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, 1615 Vine St., Hollywood WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Fri.; runs 8 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.; ends June 29. PRICE: $50-$75 INFO: (323) 230-9819; www.thewhostommy.com