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Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley: Unattached
Review by Rob Lester


Broadway Records

Who would have thought that when Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley were cast as the real-life conjoined Hilton twins 19 years ago in the original production of the Broadway show Side Show that they'd show up now, fervent fans intact, again as a duo act in a nightclub? It seems that the two, who shared a few kinds of bonds—and a "joint" Tony nomination for playing the sisters—share a special place in the hearts of some theatre devotees. For a production that ran so long ago, but not for so long a time (91 performances, not including previews) and with a recent revival, though even more short-lived, fresher in the minds of some, its impact is impressive.

Impresario Scott Siegel first brought Skinner and Ripley together in concert at Town Hall, resulting in a live CD, one of their three prior tandem efforts. In February of this year, the chemistry was reignited at Feinstein's/54 Below in an act called Unattached, and this new live recording comes from that engagement. The show is being reprised this month at the club with performances through July 25. They still set off sparks in a musical theatre-rich set that mixes winking playfulness with dramatic fireworks.

Capturing the bonhomie and the acknowledged cult status of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's Side Show and theatre aficionados audibly relishing a rhapsodic reunion, the album is fun beyond fluff. "Leave Me Alone" rises to a fever pitch, but seems to stop abruptly with a comment that "Nobody even remembers that song ..." "I Will Never Leave You" serves as both the opener and an instrumental end-of-show playoff. The vocal version becomes a flashback and a kind of victors' entrance of esteemed heroines, tempered with the gleeful greeting of cheers and applause with the impending joke—a visual one the CD can only recall by the patter that reinforces it: They came on stage at the club coyly switching the left/right positions they had faced theatre audiences in, immortalized in photos. Another running gag is also visual, the wardrobe choices that find them making changes—to be or not to be in the same outfit.

But plenty of humor comes through in this talk-heavy recording that does not depend on seeing; the ladies aim barbs at each other and themselves, fessing up to their quirks and some type-casting in their careers. After a particularly intense and visceral Ripley roar, Skinner tells the audience that sharing a stage with her is like being with a "wild animal."

Early numbers celebrate friendship, including "Friendship" with all the Cole Porter-penned loopiness, plus a couple of updated references. Two numbers from Gypsy fit the bill: the perhaps inevitable "Together Wherever We Go" and the more pointed "You'll Never Get Away from Me." The recital nearly threatens to become a BFF festival, with the two gushing with gratitude, complimenting each other. But soon enough, we see their sounds, styles, and strengths complement each other.

Alice Ripley's fearless powerhouse and edgy singing, haunting, and with a wide vibrato has as its balance Emily Skinner's smoother, warmer sound. Both can be tough and, within that stance, indicate a reservoir of aching vulnerability beneath bravado. This dichotomy is especially well demonstrated in a couple of the solos: Alice with a showstopping tightrope walk on "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard, a musical in which she'd been the ingénue. Emily envelops herself in "When It Ends," an eyes-forced-wide-open stance created by Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party).

A trio of pop treats by Harry Nilsson previews the oeuvre Ripley is ripping through for a full-length songwriter tribute, and another non-theatre sweet wave of nostalgia comes with the oldie "Tonight You Belong to Me," done a capella and putting the spotlight on their vocal skills and harmonies. Mame's "Bosom Buddies" and its sarcasm cement the tongue-in-cheek skewering that has built up.

With chatter included between every number, which might be way too much for many who just care about the music, there's more along the lines of riposte than revelation. The trio of musical director/pianist John Fischer, bassist Randy Landau, and drummer Shannon Ford easily switches gears and genres from tender theatre character spotlight (Skinner gracefully inhabiting "I Don't Need a Roof" from Andrew Lippa's Big Fish, a recent resumé addition) to intriguingly curious (a duet of Shaina Taub's "Reminder Song") to wistful, winsome folk-pop (Carly Simon's "Two Little Sisters," the encore and another duet).

While I feared at first that the act might seem like going to a well once too often, the Side Show "connection" is just the nostalgic hook—this get-together is altogether charming and worthy. With each spin, I have found myself becoming more and more attached to Unattached..

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