Two of a Kind? No, but Ripley and Skinner Make a Winning Pair

Emily Skinner, left, and Alice Ripley reunited for
Emily Skinner, left, and Alice Ripley reunited for "Side by Side" at the Kennedy Center. (Kennedy Center - Kennedy Center)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 14, 2008

Broadway tossed Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner together in 1997 as conjoined twins in "Side Show," and they've been stuck together in the public imagination ever since. Skinner has the sweet persona, while Ripley is queen of the psychodrama; teamed up they're an odd but winsome pair.

An unusually demonstrative crowd greeted "Side by Side," their tag-team cabaret Friday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater (the latest in the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series). Skinner excelled at warm ballads and comic turns, reaching back to the 1930s with the bluesy torch song "You Can't Have My Heart" and rendering Mae West's "Come Up and See Me Sometime" as endearingly racy.

Ripley, on the other hand, dove into modern musicals for numbers that were practically cross-eyed with intensity. Gripping the microphone in both fists, she was maximally obsessive and shell-shocked during Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind." Most formidably, Ripley trotted out an anthem from "Kristina" by ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (though more "Les Miz" than "Mamma Mia!"), and she sang it with such ferocious dedication that even Skinner seemed awed.

Neither woman has the roof-raising pipes of grand Broadway divas, but after a pedestrian opening, their singing (accompanied by pianist Ross Patterson) proved more than capable. Each went off-microphone for a number in the second act, with Skinner thoroughly at ease crooning "More Than You Know." Ripley's choice: the delicately unnerved, hauntingly lovely "Serenity," from the underappreciated 1990s musical "Triumph of Love." Her hands free, Ripley submerged herself in the song's fluctuating current and delivered a mesmerizing dramatic performance.

Duets naturally included "I Will Never Leave You" from "Side Show," but most of what they did together came between the songs. Their patter was uneven -- Skinner confessed to feeling awkward about it -- yet they scored with an anecdote about a mid-performance costume change during "Side Show" that left the twins connected on the wrong side.

The pleasure was in the stylistic back-and-forth: Skinner comically trilling the satirical "Here Comes the Ballad" like a saccharine operetta star, Ripley delivering a subtly nutty, strangely sexy take on "Broadway Baby." It's hard to imagine people can't tell them apart, and not just because Skinner's the zaftig blonde and Ripley's the slender brunette. In terms of musical temperament, they don't seem at all alike -- and vive le difference.

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