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Jeff

Monday, March 31, 2014

REVIEW: If/Then

Review of the preview matinee on Sunday, March 16 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City.  Starring Idina Menzel, La Chanze, Anthony Rapp, and James Snyder, with Jenn Colella, Tamika Lawrence, Jason Tam and Jerry Dixon. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey.  Music by Tom Kitt.  Choreography by Larry Keigwin.  Directed by Michael Greif.  2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.

Grade: A

*NOTE:
Since there is no song list in the Playbill, I wrote this using titles listed in other articles, so they might not be exactly correct as compared to the forthcoming cast recording.  And I am going to try my best not to include many plot spoilers in my explanations.

If for no other reason than to support Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt for having the guts to write something completely original, fans of the musical theatre should be running to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to support the new musical If/Then which opened yesterday.  Fortunately, there are many more reasons to get yourself to 46th Street.

The If/Then Company
Chief among those reasons is that Yorkey and Kitt have again brought a thought-provoking, challenging new show to Broadway that engages the mind and the heart and also gives you reason to do some self-reflection.  I could say the same for their award-winning next to normal, another completely original piece.  But while If/Then is far less extreme, it is still about a fairly risky topic - can you make an interesting slice of life show about a jaded city planner and her New York City friends? - told in an even riskier way - one life, two versions of that life, told simultaneously.  Like most songwriters, their songs this time around have a certain similarity to their previous work, but they mostly have a sound of their own.  Blending a modern Broadway style with an adult contemporary sound, there are clever group numbers that get the adrenaline going (the act one opening sequence, "It's a Sign"), group numbers that bring you right to the emotional spot you need to be in (the act two opening sequence), some really amazing duets ("Here I Go," "I Love You/I Hate You," "No More Wasted Time," "Best Worst Mistake"), and a couple of stunning power ballads ("Learn to Live Without," "Starting Over").  At worst, upon first hearing, some songs sound pretty similar to others.  But the best part of it is that not all of the prime material - both musically and in the book scenes - is reserved for the star over the title; all of the main characters get more than one chance to really shine.

Lucas and David
(Anthony Rapp and Jason Tam)
Just as the solos and duets give the main characters moments to shine, the company numbers also afford the ensemble the opportunity to have their own impact, and to create interesting characters as well.  Some of the musical's most exciting scenes come when the entire company converges at key life moments and simultaneously reveal what would happen "if" and "then."  For example, both the surprise party at the close of act one and the wedding scene at the start of act two rather pointedly show how shutting people out or welcoming more people into your life can impact how you juggle happy occasions and deal with life-changing events.  If/Then is one of those rare shows that is perfectly cast, from the lead to the smallest ensemble roles, with a book and score that seems perfectly matched to each actor's unique gifts.

Rarer still is that the cast may just be the most diverse (without being heavy-handed about it) and true to life of any musical currently on the Rialto - the characters are straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, single, married, liberal, conservative and broadly multicultural.    Miguel Cervantes and Curtis Holbrook bring a NY bartender and a soldier to life, respectively, while Ryann Redmond provides a nice laugh as an assistant with a rather specific quirk, and Ann Sanders makes the most of the small, but pivotal role as the wife of the boss.  Ms. Sanders gets the chance to show us - in microcosm - how chance and choice in our lives effect people well beyond our immediate circle of friends and co-workers.
Stephen, Cathy and Liz
(Dixon, Sanders and Menzel)

Elena, Anne, Kate and Beth
(Lawrence, Colella, La Chanze and Menzel)
On a much larger scale, the impact of fate and conscious decisions is the crux of all that happens to central character "Elizabeth" and her "inner circle" in If/Then.  Tamika Lawrence makes the most of a role that only figures into half of the story, and Jason Tam does nice work - he charms effortlessly - as a sweet, funny guy who is a good friend in one story and a warm and emotional life partner in the other.  Jerry Dixon makes what is essentially two different roles easy to follow as he is a real family man in one story, and a cheating dog of a man in the other.  And Jenn Colella shines as one half of a lesbian couple who offer an example of commitment in one story, while portraying the toll of a tumultuous relationship in the other story.  She has a powerful voice (as evidenced in the dramatic argument duet, "No More Wasted Time) and a presence that is enthralling.

Liz and Josh
(Idina Menzel and James Snyder)
Most of the characters are - love 'em or hate 'em - typical head-strong New Yorkers, opinionated and open-minded, quirky and solid, distant and loving, often all of them at once.  And all of those qualities really come into play as we see the what happens between Elizabeth and her three closest relationships.  In one story, fate (and some free will) bring Liz and Josh together.  The wonderful James Snyder brings this doctor/soldier to life with an intoxicating mix of strength and vulnerability.  His voice is just as emotional and rich as his acting, and his chemistry with his leading lady is palpable.  His stirring soliloquy, "Hey Kid" gets a well-deserved rousing hand.  LaChanze is a sassy dynamo of energy, wit and emotion, ramping up the energy every time she takes the stage.  Everything she does hits the mark - the laughs she provides are hearty, the strength she brings is inspiring and the feelings she exudes are enlightening.  Perhaps I am imposing preconceived ideas on Anthony Rapp's character Lucas, but I couldn't help but think that he is what Mark from RENT would have turned out to be - a noted, published activist.  In act one, he is a little much (both the character and the actor), with an intensity that is a tad off-putting (he is a New Yorker, after all).  But all is forgiven in act two when Lucas lightens up a bit, and Rapp navigates the tricky waters of both stories which require him to be two largely different guys exceptionally well.  Lesson learned: don't be so fast to judge a character or performance based on half the show!

Elizabeth
(Idina Menzel)
All of that said,  this is Idina Menzel's show and she brings it.  What a thrill to witness her growth as an actress and a singer (Kitt knows how to write for her range).  Every time she opens her mouth to sing, we get hit with waves of powerful notes and emotions.  Those soaring notes and spot-on interpretations of songs are what we have come to expect from her, and she exceeds expectations here.  Her pre-finale aria is perhaps the single most thrilling moment of the season thus far. But it is her acting that really bowled me over.  In a role that requires her to be one woman, but in two very different lights, she easily alternates between the single-minded, career-driven Beth and the more emotionally available, determined-to-make-it-all-work wife, mother and professional Liz.  On the surface of it, Liz is the warmer, fuzzier version, if you will, that hits all of the emotional buttons, while Beth's version is more straightforward and logical.  Ms. Menzel plays "both" characters extremely well, while never forgetting to show us the common denominator that is Elizabeth.  Simply put, she is giving the performance of her career.

The If/Then Company
Choreographer Larry Keigwin's occasional and brief choreography offers a contemporary urgency and visual metaphor for the time and place of the show. With its stylized motion that starts in one direction then abruptly makes an unexpected turn, we see that these people may be in rush to keep moving, but often, where they think they are going is not where they end up.  The dance only compliments Michael Greif's tight direction, that offers up a constant flow of interesting, highly theatrical stage images.  I was particularly taken by the use of upstage pairings and groupings that mirrors the action downstage, and his careful staging of those times when events converge for both stories (a surprise birthday party and a wedding happen in both "realities," for example), especially when he uses balance and imbalance for emphasis.  Perhaps best of all, he has effectively called upon his entire creative team to help convey the themes and, in this case, the plot itself.

As I have mentioned in reviews of other shows set in the modern day, costuming might be more difficult than it seems.  Done correctly, it should do what all such designs do - convey character.  But with modern dress, it also needs to look really natural - and go largely unnoticed.  Emily Rebholz does all of that very well, providing the characters with a stylized New York 2014 look.  She also has made it easier for the audience to know when we are looking at "Liz" or "Beth," with the simple change of a blazer and the use of eyeglasses.  Similarly, lighting designer Kenneth Posner has used a color-coding system to show us which place we are in - red/orange/yellow hues for one, blues/greens for the other, with shared, moodier lighting for those convergent scenes (a lovely starry sky surrounds Elizabeth during a big epiphany; her party (ies) take place at night, etc.).  Scenic designer Mark Wendland has created an impressive unit set that evokes the city with its fire escape ladders, balconies and bridges, and lush green trees surrounding it behind what appears to be glass.  He has also given the audience a visual metaphor with the use of a giant overhead mirror, so that we see the parallel nature of whats going on, as well as a few well-chosen moments where the audience can see itself in the reflection as well.  Spare, suggestive use of minimalist structures and a few pieces of furniture complete the look allowing for a smooth transition between the numerous scenes.  Altogether, the design elements do an excellent job of helping the audience keep track of what's happening without spoon feeding, which I appreciate.
Beth and Lucas
(Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp)

Ultimately, as a theatre-goer who relishes shows that demand my participation and attention, If/Then hits all the right notes for me.  I love shows that engage me intellectually first and then draw me in with an emotional investment.  I found the first act to be enthralling and, in the balance, a somewhat harsh look at what it is to be a person of the still-new millennium - where every decision seems urgent and all important, and where, sadly, everything is a conflict between doing for "me" and doing for "everyone."  Act two is all about the emotional price that must be paid for our self-indulgence and/or altruism.  Wonderfully, as it should be, the show ends on an optimistic, hopeful note.  I wish for us all that our lives have such hope.  Admittedly, If/Then might not be for everyone; it asks a lot of its audience.  And the writers have stuffed it full of ideas - perhaps a few too many.  But of all the new musicals this season, this is the one that has been on my mind a full two weeks after seeing it.  It has really made me think about where I am, what I am doing, and who is in my life.  If the events of my life had played out the way I thought they would have, then I wouldn't have the most important people in my life in my life.  Would you?

Photos by Joan Marcus

Jeff
5.139

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