Wednesday, March 26, 2014

IF/THEN: An Ordinary Story About Ordinary People

People, we have a new turntable on Broadway, and no, I'm not talking about the revival of Les Miserables. Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey's new musical IF/THEN opens tonight on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This is a modern musical about everyday people doing everyday things. Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) is a recently divorced almost-forty Urban Planner who has recently returned to Manhattan. Urban Planning, how modern? She is faced with a series of choices, both personally and professionally, that will affect her life drastically. Pretty ordinary, right? None of this screams, "let's make a musical," right? I've always loved the old saying "the characters sing when they can't speak anymore," but I rarely felt that these characters were pushed to the emotionally brink, at least not enough to merit a song. The only thing really intriguing about the plot is the overlapping exploration of Elizabeth's multiple lives. The audience gets to watch both sides of her choices play out, which is fantastic in theory, but really makes for a confusing plot. If you're a fan of the show LOST, think of those flashes-sideways and you'll have an idea of what is going on here.

The opening scene, set in Madison Square Park, is reminiscent of Sunday in the Park With George as the actors seem to spring out of the set. The opening number speaks repeatedly about choices, and though it is didactic and basically hits you over the head with the themes of the show, at least it let's the audience know what we will be seeing. It is very Comedy Tonight in that way, which is no surprise since Tom Kitt has mentioned more than once that he is a Sondheim disciple. 

Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) faces an endless series of choices in the show, beginning with the decision to go by 'Liz' or "Beth". She carries this show on her back and vocally, she is stunning as always. Her vocal power hasn't regressed at all in the ten years since she last Defied Gravity. The highlight is certainly the 11 o'clock number where she questions why she did what she did before finding contentment in the finale. I didn't find the character particularly interesting, but she does well with what she is given. You can see how tortured she is when her life doesn't go the way she planned, and she's way too proud to ever ask for help from friends, even though she is always a rock for them.

Kate (LaChanze) is the standout of the show. Her performance is what the "Best Featured Actress" TONY was made for, a bright light in an average production. She delivers the one liners perfectly with snap, and sometimes with bite. Her energy is absolutely palpable, even from the rear mezzanine where I so humbly sat. Her confidence and strength play perfectly against Elizabeth's confusion and uncertainty.

In the show that is a not-so-subtle love letter to RENT, it's fitting that Anthony Rapp plays Lucas like he played Mark. Lucas is all "power to the people" and sexual confusion, which is both annoying and frustrating. It just seems so been there, done that. In the past, and in one of the many alternating presents, Lucas and Elizabeth had/have a romantic relationship. Maureen and Mark anyone? Do we see it yet?

Ultimately, Michael Greif's production begs us to ask ourselves "what happens to the other versions of ourselves when we make different choices?" It certainly makes you think about your own life choices, and for that, we should applaud this production. Cut the plane crash, the bisexual bestie from 1994, and the shmaltzy melodrama and we could have something here, but as of now, it's nothing all that special. 

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