If "Tell Me on a Sunday" were any wispier, it would slip between the cracks in the floor of the Eisenhower Theater and evaporate in the Kennedy Center's basement. Clocking in at barely 70 minutes, the show is a chronicle of the fairly uneventful travails of a hapless Englishwoman as she dumps, and is dumped by, a succession of American men in Queens, Greenwich Village and Beverly Hills.
Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music for this one-woman sung-through piece in the 1970s, before his productions had claws or chandeliers or killer staircases. It's more cabaret than theater, really, and what it's doing in a hall as large as the Eisenhower is a mystery. It cries out for an intimate setting, where a performer -- in this case, the adorable Alice Ripley -- might stand a chance of making a compelling connection with an audience.
Yes, Bernadette Peters performed it in 1985 on Broadway, when "Tell Me on a Sunday" was the first act of "Song and Dance"; the second act was all dancing to Lloyd Webber's variations on Paganini's Caprice in A Minor. Peters won a Tony Award for her work, but it was not a particularly juicy year for the musical theater -- "Tango Argentino" was, after all, one of the nominees for best musical -- and Bernadette Peters is, well, Bernadette Peters.
That is not to say that Alice Ripley is not Alice Ripley. Best known to Washington audiences for her hysterical handling last summer of the tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today" in the Sondheim Celebration's mounting of "Company," Ripley is a self-assured young Broadway veteran ("Side Show," "Sunset Boulevard") with an elastic voice and charm to spare.
For Emma, the evening's protagonist, she puts on a convincing English accent, with rounded vowels that sound like eerie echoes of Julie Andrews's. In fact, with talk of a possible collaboration between the Walt Disney Co. and producer Cameron Mackintosh on a stage version of "Mary Poppins," Ripley might just make the perfect magical nanny to help the medicine go down.
She's no mere spoonful of sugar, though. If not quite an electrifying presence on the level of Peters, Ripley nevertheless demonstrates here that she can carry a show as well as a tune. Under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, her rendition of the signature number, "Unexpected Song," is suavely persuasive. Deft even with second-rate material, she creates a warm-blooded portrait from the sketchy outlines of a character provided her by Lloyd Webber and lyricist Don Black. In truth, she puts more flesh on Emma's bones than the work's creators had any right to expect.
"Tell Me on a Sunday" purports to slip into the skin of that familiar oddity, the attractive woman with no talent for finding a mate. Emma meets men easily: Sheldon, a movie producer; Joe, in the software business; Paul, a married man from the suburbs. The relationships, though, don't last, for reasons the musical looks at in only the most superficial of ways; you get more insight into the vicissitudes of coupling on any installment of "The View." For Emma is all wrapping and no present. She only tells you things you already knew. "When the bosoms droop, 50 surgeons swoop," she sings in "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad," a song that drags out every cliche about California living. It's all prosaic, all the time. "Loneliness," Emma sings at one point, "must be the worst feeling of all."
Ripley does indeed look lonely up there on the big stage she is forced to share with the unflattering sets Edward Pierce has devised to represent New York apartments and California pool sides. (The skyline backdrops are a little better). And some of the costuming choices are peculiar. The actress appears to be wearing a black wig; in any event, she keeps pulling on and adjusting her hair, as well as her bikinis and robes and gowns, in ways that suggest she would have been aided greatly by one more session with a wardrobe fitter.
What "Tell Me on a Sunday" does for Ripley is provide the kind of showcase that should inevitably lead to bigger and much better things. On this evening she may hit all the appropriate notes, but the rest of us are still left with a hollow ring.
Tell Me on a Sunday, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; lyrics by Don Black; American adaptation and additional lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Sets and lighting, Edward Pierce; musical director, Steve Marzullo; sound, Kurt Eric Fischer; costumes, Robert Guy. Approximately 70 minutes. Through Jan. 12 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.