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"If/Then" runs into traffic jam in life's "fork-in-the-road" problem
Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey; music by Tom Kitt, directed by Michael Greif.
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York City.
Opened March 30, 2014.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 3, 2014.
Idina Menzel as Elizabeth and Anthony Rapp as Lucas. Photo by Joan Marcus.
"If/Then" (book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey) takes up life's "fork-in-the-road" problem. What if a person takes this job instead of another, goes out with this guy instead of another, gets married or doesn't.
Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) 38, an urban planner, is the subject of this non-scientific experiment, or fantasy. Menzel is a fine performer, with presence and pizazz, if a little loud in the vocal department. She is unfortunately burdened with a confusing, let's-put-in-the-kitchen-sink plot.
Not surprising that director Michael Greif a few years ago did "Next to Normal," a pretentious musical about a neurotic/mentally ill housewife. He appears drawn to the bizarre.
Arriving in New York after a dozen years of bad marriage in Phoenix, Elizabeth meets up with some friends in Madison Square Park. And there things start bifurcating. By the way, if you notice the reflection, there's a mirror above that duplicates everything below. Quadfurcating?
She meets an old college friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), also 38, and a housing activist, leader of New York Citizens for Change. She will or won't go with him to a Brooklyn protest. But she's also been met there by her friend Kate (the excellent LaChanze). Lucas contributes some politics: take the environment or housing or human rights. "It's all connected. We're all in this together." True, if rather simplified.
The lyrics that move the story do not exhibit special wit.
Do I go there with Lucas, or stay here with Kate?
Oh God, why do I do this — obsess and debate?
I've been prudent and cautious for all my life long,
and yet most of my choices turn out to be wrong.
Tell me how could it make any difference?
Tell me how could it matter at all?
How do I make such a major event
Out of something so small?
Idina Menzel as Liz and James Snyder as Josh. Photo by Joan Marcus.
To complicate matters, she meets an army guy, Josh (James Snyder, with a very good voice) who is in his 30s, and who has or hasn't another tour of duty in Vietnam coming. He's been in the reserves, because he's a doctor still paying for medical school.
Elizabeth misses out on a job as a deputy urban planner because she doesn't answer the phone. Or maybe she (or her other self) gets the job.
In one reality she is Elizabeth, or Liz, in another Beth. Fortunately, I'd read in advance that when the character wears glasses she is Liz, and without them, she is Beth. I hadn't noted that the lighting is also a clue: color-coded. I wish that Greif had simply flashed "Elizabeth" or "Beth" on the proscenium arch to help the audience.
Without glasses she's a teacher. With specs, a doctor. She is variously hit on by Lucas and by her boss, Stephen (Jerry Dixon), her grad school colleague. She has an abortion in one life but not in another. As Beth, she gets an award and flies to London on a plane that makes an emergency landing. So the show is now a thriller.
"If/Then" hits all the right political bases, if not especially deeply. Elizabeth's friend Kate reads to her kindergarten class from the "American Heroes" series and tells the kids that her effort to alternate male and female heroes has been thwarted by the fact that the series has thirty-eight books on men and three on women, one of whom is Betsy Ross. Then comes my favorite line: "If I want a book on a lady hero who sews, give me Donna Karan or Diane von Furstenberg, am I right?" The fashion business trumps patriotism. Start them understanding that young.
Idina Menzel (r.) as Beth, and women friends: Tamika Lawrence as Elena, Jenn Colella as Anne, LaChancz as Kate. Photo by Joan Marcus.
There are also the de rigueur gender partner varieties. Lucas is bisexual and Kate has a girlfriend, Anne (Jenn Colella). Colella has a very good melodic voice, to be appreciated in noisy musicals. Kate and Anne get joyously married and unhappily divorced.
The one thing that doesn't change in the "what if/then" schema is the music (by Tom Kitt), sometimes a jazzy Motown style, other times a country sound. But it is all over-miked, which doesn't help with the occasional ear-splitting screeches Menzel is known for.
The best review of "If/Then" I've read is by Bonnie Lee Sanders, a musical theater playwright and cabaret singer, who saw the play with me. She wrote in an email:
"I couldn't help myself. It was cathartic to express this….Thanks for taking me…If not/then what?
"What? Who? Why? Where? When? Huh? Whose eyeglasses are these? Mine? Yours? The Baby? or Babies? Who Am I….BETH? LIZ?…Are you Lucas? Maybe Josh? Is this my baby? Did I have a baby after all? Is it yours Lucas? And, Stephen, did we ever meet? Did I work for you? Or, maybe I just imagined that? Did I ever work at all in City Planning? Was I ever pregnant? Did I have one or two cribs or, in fact, did he or she have a brother or sister, and how many cribs did I have? So many people in the mirror — I don't know how many of me or my husband or not my husband or my best friend or someone else are in some sort of reflection that gets me dizzy.
Was I Liz with the glasses? or was it Beth? Did Lucas have eyeglasses at all, or was it Josh? Did he or she or them give the eyeglasses to him or her or both? Was I Beth with glasses or Liz without them, and did Josh, who was from Nebraska and on leave love me for my eyeglasses? OMG this doesn't feel good. Should I be with him, Lucas, who really loves me but loves David, or is it Josh? And does Kate love Anne or Liz or Beth or the baby whose crib is empty? And, Stephen and Beth or Liz, you survived that plane crash, or did you? If/Then, why?
And Medina, I mean, Idina, you survived the show, and you were fantastic. Hold on to those precious vocal chords."
I was confused but not bored. It's a good bad play.
Visit Lucy Komisar’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com
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