Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 30, 2014
If/Then Music by Tom Kitt. Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography by Larry keigwin. Music Direction by Carmel Dean. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Set design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Wig & hair design by David Brian Brown. Cast: Idina Menzel, LaChanze, Anthony Rapp, Jerry Dixon, Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence, Jackie Burns, James Snyder, Joe Cassidy, Miguel Cervantes, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Klemons, Tyler McGee, Ryann Redmond, Joe Aaron Reid, Ann Sanders, Marc Delacruz, Charles Hagerty, Janet Krupin, Pearl Sun.
As it is, it's certainly more cohesive, entertaining, and engaging than Kitt and Yorkey's first joint effort, Next to Normal, which, like this one, was directed by Michael Greif. And it suggests that its authors have put some genuine creative thinking into how to make the mundane into something memorablejust not enough. Because in attempting to demonstrate how easily one decision can take us down pathways we'd never planned, composer Kitt and librettist-lyricist Yorkey have delivered two half-stories that equal less than one full show. Though this outcome is at least partially intentional, the totality of it fails to completely jell.
An urban planner named Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), recently returned to New York from Phoenix after the dissolution of her marriage, meets two friends in Madison Square Park on an ordinary day. The luminously likable Kate (LaChanze) wants her to drink coffee and listen to a street musician; buttoned-down activist Lucas (Anthony Rapp) wants her to meet the people in his protest organization.
Elizabeth makes her choice, and the narrative splits to accommodate her. When she sets off with Kate, she becomes Liz, and embarks on one existence that leads her to a protracted romance with an army doctor named Josh (James Snyder) who heals her ailing heart. Choosing Lucas turns her instead into Beth, who pursues with notable success her career constructing the next generation of Manhattan, and thrusts her into even more vexing love complications.
But if everyone manages to clear the hurdle of what, the why is much more elusive. Elizabeth's troubles, in whichever timeline, are not exactly the stuff of passionate singing. Liz's relationship with Josh is conducted blithely and often offstage, and its final resolution is rushed through just when lingering would benefit it most. Beth receives a bit more detailed focus, but the questions of how she'll balance Lucas's revolutionary ambitions with her own professional and personal desires, while mulling over the married and ostensibly unavailable Stephen, are rather less than riveting. Neither vision of Elizabeth's life receives the time and care needed to blossom into something more than a gimmick. Except for the ever-rotating mirrored backdrop, even the set (by Mark Wendland), a two-tier industrial job, seems like a retread (of those used in previous Greif shows Rent, Giant, and Next to Normal.)
The score isn't at fault. If its lyrics lack finesseHart, Porter, or Sondheim this is unquestionably notthey're reasonable evocations of the emotions at play, and appropriately hard-edged for the modern setting. Kitt, one of Broadway's most dazzling newer composers, does even better work, capturing in his vibrant, unpredictable melodies the angst, anticipation, ennui, and even redemption inherent in the sounds of a park, a subway, or a rush-hour traffic jam, and drawing jittery distinctions between the public and private effects of New York on human beings. As smartly orchestrated by Michael Starobin and lightly choreographed by Larry Keigwin, this is a cogent and compelling musical cityscape.
Yorkey's book works in sweeping strokes, eschewing evolutionary ideas in favor of more easily relatable ones; at its heart, If/Then is about the struggle we all face trying to balance life at work and home, and trying to figure out what barriers exist between who we are and who we can become. But Yorkey falters in the specifics, and doesn't interestingly develop the characters who are supposed to define Elizabeth's life. When one breakup that's treated like the End of the World is a pairing we've been exposed to for maybe five minutes, for example, the impact is marginal. Nothing around Elizabeth is important to us because so little of it seems important to her.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of all, however, is that the writers don't apparently love or need their conceit. One would expect writers who build an entire show around this unusual idea to be brimming with shocking and delightful ways to use itbut no. After the first scene, in which the parallel dimensions are established, most of the clever and nimble interlocking between them stops. Liz and Beth overlap only in two instances, and not really in song at all, which registers as something of a waste given the ripe potential for experimentation.
It's particularly frustrating that Menzel's belt-o-rama 11-o'clock number (Always Starting Over) is only about Liz's struggles at that point: No amount of endlessly sustaining soaring notes, which Menzel negotiates with her usual finesse can make this microscopic number big enough for the position it fills. But a general lack of size throughout leaves it no other choice. Nothing in the show suggests why Yorkey and Kitt didn't take the route of the 1989 real-versus-reel-life musical comedy City of Angels, which made the most of two competing narratives, but because they didn't If/Then has difficulty standing out from the crowd of single-thread shows.
Menzel's star name and joint followings from Wicked and Frozen give the show a palpable energy nonetheless, and this is the best I've ever seen or heard her. (Her recent appearance singing Let it Go on the Oscars made me fear that her voice had morphed into all shrill screeching, but it hasn't.) But she's hamstrung by the writing, and though she has a sly way with comedy and an enveloping magnetism when she sings, she can't make anything Elizabeth does matter. Her big-diva bravura isn't enough to transform a small-potatoes rolebut no one's is.
Rapp does well projecting bleeding-heart neuroticism, but his Lucas isn't far enough removed from the Mark Cohen he created in Rent. Colella, Tam, and Lawrence have tiny parts but make the most of their seconds in the spotlight. Stephen is a one-note man, but Dixon hits that note with a force that makes him almost work. Snyder brings his sterling voice to bear on a couple of big ballads, but Josh is a primary-color character no matter what and demands more shading on the page.
Overall, the most successful performance comes from LaChanze, who brings a jolting vivacity to the loves-everyone, meddles-in-everything Kate without ever making her into a garden-variety free-spirit. The actress makes Kate someone who can believably love chaos and structure at the same time, as prone to making a scene while trying to make a match in the subway as to go dynamically off-lesson with her kindergarten students and to shatter when her love life shifts in unforeseen ways.
I found myself wondering, in fact, why the show wasn't about herI was definitely more involved in how Kate would change the game for each new person she met than whether Elizabeth would stop Lucas's protest group from causing a scene at the wrong time. Oh wellonce choices are made, there's not much point in arguing with them. But just as Elizabeth constantly frets over what might have been, it's tough not to wonder what the resolutely okay If/Then might have been were it instead an exciting idea excitingly executed.