Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is the premise of If/Then, a clever and entertaining, if somewhat chilly, musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Next to Normal. The national tour of If/Then is now on stage at the Orpheum Theatre, giving the show its Minnesota premiere. Two seasons ago If/Then opened on Broadway, where it lasted a year, largely on the draw of star Idina Menzel. When Ms. Menzel was ready to leave the show, it closed rather than cast a replacement for her. Though staged and designed with great intelligence, it is not a show with spectacle. It is not based on a familiar film or TV show, nor does it use well-worn songs culled from a jukebox. The theme is serious and played as such, though within that frame is an abundance of humor and wit, but no bawdy comic scenes of questionable taste to tickle our palates. Imagine, a musical with a totally original book and totally original score dealing with real people in real places, and something on its mind.
Elizabeth is a city planner in her late thirties recovering from a divorce after 12 years of marriage. She has just moved from Phoenix back to New York City, where she began her adult life. Upon arrival she makes a new friend in Kate, an extraordinarily outgoing and life-affirming kindergarten teacher who lives in the apartment next door with her partner Ann. Elizabeth makes plans to reconnect with her dearest old friend Lucas in nearby Madison Square. Elizabeth, Kate, and Lucas all meet in the park. Lucas, a radical housing advocate, begs Elizabeth (whom he calls Beth) to come with him to a political action the next night. Kate encourages Elizabeth (whom she calls Liz) to instead go with her to a club where the "sexy guitar player" performing in the park will be playing. Kate and Lucas both really sell their invitations, leaving Elizabeth to choose. What to do? Does it matter that much?
At this point If/Then splits into two narratives, with Liz going to the club with Kate, and Beth going to the demonstration with Lucas. Each path brings with it different opportunities and disappointments for Beth/Liz. There are chance meetings, job offers, friends of friends, marriages and divorces, moments of weakness and moments of steely resolve, new life and terrible loss. To help us distinguish Beth's scenes from Liz's, a simple device: Liz wears glass, Beth does not. Her personality, though, is all Elizabeth, as it should be. She is not two different women, but the same person who has made one choice or another. Her temperament, her barbed sense of humor, her craving for a life that makes a difference, those are present in both Liz and Beth. The plotting works remarkably well, with both narratives running true to actual life. Only the end, which strives to bring both stories to a pat conclusion, feels artificial.
Brian Yorkey's strong book casts events that seem very authentic to real life and dialogue that sounds like real people talking. His lyrics are smart, and well matched to Tom Kitt's music. With twenty songs listed in the program (and a couple of reprises), If/Then is a very tuneful show, and the underrated score is above par among contemporary musicals, with several truly wonderful ("A Map of New York," "You Never Know," "What the Fuck," "No More Wasted Time," "You Learn to Live Without," and "Always Starting Over"the last two providing great opportunities for diva-belting by the leading lady). More impressive is the manner in which many of the songs are integrated with story developments, so that songs truly advance the plot. "Surprise," "Hey Kid," "I Hate You" and the aforementioned "What the Fuck" (though I wouldn't mind if Kitt and Yorkey had given that one a different title) are prime examples. Two numbers, "Map of New York" and "Ain't No Man Manhattan," serve well to contrast the two approaches to building community Beth is torn betweenthe former celebrating the power of top-down planning, the latter making a case for bottom-up community organizing.
If anything is amiss, it is that the back-and-forth nature of the narrative makes it hard to connect emotionally with the characters. Just as we are feeling drawn into the depth of one scene, we pivot back to the alternate scenario. This is part of the show's cleverness, but diminishes its warmth. This is no reflection whatsoever on the terrific performance given by Jackie Burns in this challenging part. Ms. Burns was standby to Idina Menzel during If/Then's run on Broadway, and sings very much with Menzel's style and power, making the diva moments her own. She gives her numerous songs strong readings, and delivers both the serious and humorous elements of the book. Though Elizabeth's character as written is brash and overly analytic, Burns' performance makes her totally appealing, both as Beth and as Liz.
The entire cast give terrific performances. Anthony Rapp created the role of Lucas on Broadway and continues with the national tour, so the part is assuredly his. His voice seemed a bit raspy on opening night, but he created a real sense of Lucasa difficult personality, of uncertain sexual orientation, determined not to betray his youthful idealism with inner tenderness in spite of his hard-nosed radical posturing. On opening night Charissa Bertels performed the role of Kate, filling in for "American Idol" alum Tamyra Gray, and did a terrific, crowd-pleasing job, showing all the requisite energy, wit, and charisma the part calls for. Matthew Hydzik is very appealing as Liz's love interest, bringing a warm tenor and boyish handsomeness to the part. As Stephen, a former colleague who becomes an avid booster of Beth's career, Daren A. Herbert comes across with sharp-edged charm. Janine DiVita plays Ann and Marc Delacruz plays David, two smaller parts, but both deliver the goods when called upon. The rest of the ensemble fill in as various subway passengers, party-goers, and other background persons who enliven several production numbers.
Those numbers are well suited to the confines of the urban settings in which the story takes place. In "It's a Sign," Kate breaks out in song to prove that Liz's repeatedly crossing paths with Josh is more than coincidence, and rouses a subway car full of fellow travelers to join in. Larry Keigwin's choreography has the sizzle of urban energy, but remains mindful of its setting. While the dance in If/Then is not its major element, it does add both to telling the show's twin stories and to its entertainment value. Taken as a whole, Michael Greif's direction is a major accomplishment, keeping the parallel plotlines moving forward, guiding the audience back and forth between the two, and never allowing energy or focus to flag.
Design and creative work is effective, with moving platforms, panels, and a bridge structure across the stage creating the varied locations, and costumes that seem fully suited to today's urban scene. Light and sound designs draw attention and focus to the shifting locations and storylines. Projection designs, which have become almost standard in shows today, are especially effective in establishing movement around New York City, travel by subway, welcome green space in a city park, and social events.
If/Then is much better than its mixed reviews and short run on Broadway would suggest. It is not one of the great musicals of the decade, but it does offer a well-told storytwo stories, in factand makes a keen statement as to just how much our own choice versus random events determine the outcomes of our lives, along with the way in which our lives affect those all around us. With a good score, and staged with strong performances, it is very much worth seeing. Who knows, perhaps in an alternative universe, the show has opened to universal acclaim.
If/Then runs through March 13, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $134.00. For ticket information call 61is 2-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, www.ifthenthemusical.com.
Music: Tom Kitt; Book and Lyrics: Brian Yorkey; Director: Michael Greif; Choreographer: Larry Keigwin; Orchestrations: Michael Starobin; Set Design: Mark Wendland; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Projection Design: Peter Nigrini & Dan Scully; Wig and Hair Design: David Brian Brown; Casting: Telsey + Company, Craig Burns, CSA; Conductor: Kyle C. Norris; James Dodgson; Vocal Arrangement: Annmarie Milazzo; Music Coordinator: Michael Keller; Music Supervisor: Carmel Dean; Technical Supervision: Jake Bell and Noel Bell; General Management: 321 Theatrical Productions; Production Stage Manager: Shawn Pennington; Associate Director: Richard J. Hinds; Associate Choreographer: Mark Myars
Cast: English Bernhardt (Paulette and others), Jackie Burns (Elizabeth), Xavier Cano (A Solider and others), Marc Delacruz (David), Janine DiVita (Anne), Kyra Faith (Elena and others), Corey Greenan (Deputy Mayor, An Architect and others), Tamyra Gray (Kate), Clifton Hall (A Bartender and others), Daren A. Herbert (Stephen), Matthew Hydzik (Josh), Tyler McGee (A Street Musician and others), Anthony Rapp (Lucas), Alicia Taylor Tomasko (A Flight Attendant and others.