For Alice Ripley, playing the lead in the acclaimed musical “Next to Normal” is not a matter of choice.
“I can’t say no to Diana. She’s going to have to say no to me sometime,” the San Leandro-born, Midwest-bred actress says during a phone interview.
Opening next week at the Curran Theatre, the show — about ups and downs in a modern suburban family — is remarkable because it is simultaneously, and extremely, meaningful and emotional.
“Finally we’re seeing a real woman’s story onstage,” says Ripley, a Tony Award winner. “We get to see a complex woman who is liberated in the end. With all due respect to Rodgers and Hammerstein, this is not that.” Ripley has played ingénues before, and now is enjoying the challenge of portraying a mentally ill character.
“She ends up cracking in front of you,” says Ripley, adding that Diana’s intensity, and the issues facing her family, resonate with audiences because they are real and moving.
“The problems that plague them are very American, and very familiar to me from growing up. We were struggling with life,” says the actress, a middle child who as a preteen experienced a dramatic change when her dad remarried and her family increased from five to 11 children.
Written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, “Next to Normal” has unusually demanding music that includes waltzes, ballads and thrash rock.
“I throw cutlery, fight with my husband, deal with things that cause me to sob, and I have to sing it through a score that’s a pastiche of contemporary styles,” Ripley says of her role. “It does take its toll on my energy; I spend my life offstage preparing and recovering.”
But her work is effective, and affects audiences who often return to the show and tell her it had an impact on their lives.
“Whether or not they realize it, they’re coming to a happening that’s not like any musical they’ve ever seen before,” says Ripley, who adds that while “Next to Normal” has jokes and corny comedy, it “shows people how to grieve.”
It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, a reality Ripley says cannot be denied. She attributes a good part of that success to Michael Greif, the visionary director who was at the helm of “Rent” too.
Ripley also praises Kevin Adams, whose lighting design informs her at every performance.
“Kevin took the emotion of the show and used it with the lights,” she says. “They cue me, and are a major part of my system that works.”
Offstage, to decompress from the rigors of playing Diana, Ripley has returned to strumming a guitar, which she took up as a teen. She is excited about what evolved, a recording of cover tunes by the likes of Carole King, Bruce Springsteen and Lucinda Williams. Called “Daily Practice,” the album comes out Feb. 15, while she is in S.F. for “Next to Normal.”
During her stay, she hopes to visit her birthplace, San Leandro, and will go to Muir Woods, which she found spiritual on previous Bay Area visits.
“Those trees are incredible. They resonated with me. I can see it in me, the energy that comes from them,” Ripley says.
IF YOU GO
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 20
Tickets: $30 to $99
Contact: (888) 746-1799 or www.shnsf.com