Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
If/Then is an original musical that opened on Broadway in 2014. It tells the story of urban planner Elizabeth, who has just moved back to New York City after a divorce. On her first day back in town, she meets up in a park with her longtime friend Lucas, a community activist, as well as Kate, her new neighbor. Elizabeth has to decide which one to spend the rest of the day with. The show follows the two different paths her life would take depending on that seemingly inconsequential choice. Her career, marriage, family life, and the lives of those around her diverge and the musical explores both paths.
Within the book by Brian Yorkey, the device to present two separate stories with the same characters is an interesting one, requiring attention and thoughtful consideration from the audience as it weaves back and forth (sometimes even during a single scene or song) between the two. It's intriguing to see how small decisions or choices can open up (or shut out) opportunities, consequences, and luck, and the idea of fate (mostly involving Elizabeth and military doctor Josh) is also in play. Yorkey's story contains healthy doses of humor and angst, all with a modern, urban flavor and tone. However, the device is also a potential problem for the show. Being able to keep track of which story is being told, and following the narrative of both simultaneously, isn't always easy. Despite keeping a few things constant, yet distinct, in each story (she goes by Liz in one and Beth in the other; one wears glasses while the other doesn't), many audience members are likely be get confused along the way. In addition, as creative as the device is, neither of the two separate stories is particularly intriguing on its own. Another problem is that act two tends to meander and is at least fifteen minutes too long.
The score is by Tom Kitt (music) and Mr. Yorkey (lyrics), the pair who brought us the excellent Next To Normal. Kitt also supplied the music for the underrated High Fidelity and half of Bring in On (in collaboration with Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda). With If/Then, the songs seem tailored to the style of Menzel's roof-raising pop vocals, coupled with smart and efficient lyrics. While the score is a good one, and includes some individual song standouts, the score as a whole isn't quite up to the level of Next To Normal and feels "anthem heavy." Song highlights include: "It's a Sign", a fun and energetic tune about fate for Kate; "What the Fuck?," in which Elizabeth questions her choice of leaping into a new relationship; a driving love duet for Liz and Josh in "Here I Go" the tender "Hey, Kid"; and "Always Starting Over."
Director Michael Greif (Rent, Next To Normal) knows his way around urban shows about angst, and certainly supplies some wonderfully staged moments. Most of them would be spoilers to describe, but he skillfully handles the transitions between the two stories and the complexities that come with it. The show also serves as a bit of a love letter to New York City, much of which is conveyed in the tone of the piece. The choreography by Larry Keigwin is modernistic, sometimes accurately capturing the tone of the piece, but prone to feeling inorganic at times as well. Kyle C. Norris leads a great sounding 14-piece orchestra.
Jackie Burns understudied the part of Elizabeth on Broadway and the first few stops of the tour, but the role is all hers now, and she knocks her many songs out of the ballpark. Sounding and looking a lot like Menzel, Ms. Burns is not only a powerhouse in the singing department, but her acting choices are excellent too, giving layers to this intellectual, guarded character. Matthew Hydzik (Side Show revival) brings the perfect levels of warmth, charisma, optimism, and determination to Josh, and sings very well. Rent original star Original Broadway cast member Anthony Rapp plays Elizabeth's bisexual friend Lucas, and wonderfully captures the neurotic eccentricities of the part while bringing varied takes on the character via the two storylines. Former "American Idol" contestant Tamara Gray has the spunk and sass of new friend Kate, and showcases her singing well. Daren A. Herbert (Stephen), Janine DiVita (Anne), and Marc Delacruz (David) all do well in supporting roles, as does the ensemble.
The two-level set by Mark Wendland is fairly basic in its foundation, but effectively uses projections and smaller mobile pieces to capture the many settings of the show. The projections include visually interesting effects, including a moving subway, and often utilize subtle images such as maps or drawings related to Elizabeth's job as a city planner. The costumes by Emily Rebholz are suitable and stylish, but could include a bit more variation. Kenneth Posner's lighting is professionally rendered as usual, and includes some breathtaking silhouettes through backlighting.
If/Then is to be praised for pushing the envelope and trying something challenging in terms of musical theater. Theatergoers looking for something new and fresh, and who are willing to engage with and give proper attention to the piece, can find a lot to like. While there could be more clarity in spots, the talented cast and intriguing concept make this an interesting show, though one that some will go away from feeling frustrated.
If/Then continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through February 7, 2016. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816. For more information on the tour, please visit ifthenthemusical.com/tour.php.