Location: The National Theatre, Washington, DC
Website: Official If/Then musical site
Starring: Idina Menzel, LaChanze, Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, Jerry Dixon, Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence
My Review: Now that I no longer live in NYC, my opportunities to be among the first people to take in a new play or musical are severely limited. (You don't know how many months I had to hear about how fantastic Pippin is before I finally made my way up to NYC to see it.) So when I heard the new Broadway-bound musical If/Then (Broadway previews begin March 5, 2014) would be doing a preview here in Washington, DC, I was interested. Then when I heard it was starring Idina Menzel and being directed by Michael Greif, I was sold.
If/Then is the story of Elizabeth (Menzel); or rather, the two possible stories of Liz and Beth. Back in NYC and pushing 40 after ending a disastrous marriage in Phoenix, Elizabeth is ready for a new start. After being tugged in two different directions by her new friend and neighbor, the free spirited Kate (LaChanze), and her old college friend, the idealistic and sexually confused Lucas (Anthony Rapp), Elizabeth's story is torn in two and played out parallel to each other, showing the vast effect that one decision can have on a person's life path. (I imagine the working title of this production was Sliding Doors: The Musical.) In the one thread, she re-brands herself as "Liz" and follows Kate's advice to embrace her new life as a single woman in NYC; in the other, she goes back to her college moniker "Beth" and accepts a city planning job with former colleague, Stephen (Jerry Dixon).
With music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (the creative team behind the Tony-winning Next to Normal), direction by Michael Greif, and a cast full of Broadway stage notables, If/Then is certainly a pedigreed musical. But unfortunately, I wasn't as swept away with it as I was expecting to be. While certainly enjoyable--and it's always a treat to see Idina Menzel do pretty much anything--the production has a lot of elements that just flat out didn't work for me, and were problematic enough to distract me from the elements that did work.
Didn't Work: The first half of Act I. It takes a really long time for things to get moving in the first act. Maybe part of the problem is that they're laying the groundwork for not one, but two primary storylines, but whatever the issue is, the pace needs to be picked up.
Worked: The cast. The cast is pretty phenomenal, and is the production's saving grace. Menzel is Broadway musical royalty for good reason, and she gives both Liz and Beth enough distinction so that you believe that these two separate paths are shaping her in different ways, but she also manages to make them similar in specific ways so that you don't forget that you're watching two halves of the same woman. LaChanze is delightful and instantly reminds you of that person in your life who always tells you what you need to hear, even if it's not necessarily what you want to hear. And it's great to see Menzel re-teamed with her former Rent co-star, Anthony Rapp; the two play off each other well, both when their characters are happy and when they're annoyed with each other, and you can actually feel how joyful these two actors are to be working together again.
Didn't Work: Establishing the parallel timelines. Doing a parallel timeline story on stage can't be easy; there's no visual way to make it obvious to the audience when you're moving from one story to the other without being overly distracting. (To go back to the Sliding Doors comparison, the two extreme hairstyles Gwyneth Paltrow sports in that movie make it easy to keep track of which story you're watching, but having Elizabeth constantly switching wigs would never work since she's on stage for almost every scene.) The scenic design team attempts to resolve this by altering the lighting colors as the storylines switch, but it's so subtle that it's easily overlooked. I eventually caught on well into Act I, but my theater companion was still confused at intermission, as were many other audience members if the selections of mumblings I overheard are trust-worthy.
Didn't Work: The songs (for the most part). I admit that I never saw Next to Normal. And not due to lack of opportunity, but lack of interest. After seeing the number the cast performed at the 2009 Tony Awards--where the characters just loudly sung their streams of consciousness at each other--I just didn't feel inspired enough to get tickets. The songs (such that they are) in If/Then are written and performed in the same vein. While not quite patter singing (as that's usually used for comedic effect), the cast sings in a modified patter singing style where they're kind of melodically chanting their inner thoughts or their conversations. The Playbill offers no breakdown of musical numbers, so I have no idea what the names of any of the songs are, but I imagine the list would look something like, "Elizabeth is Excited, But Nervous, About Starting Over Again," "Kate Thinks Liz Should Be Willing to Take a Chance," and "Josh Feels Apprehensive, But is Pretty Sure Things Will Turn Out OK in the End."
Maybe I'm old-fashioned when it comes to musical theater, but I like to leave the theater after seeing a new show humming at least one of the songs I just heard. And then I'll buy the cast album and learn all the songs I like. And then I'll sing them in my shower, and in my car, and after having too much vodka (much to the delight of everyone around me). Even musicals that are sung all the way through, opera-style (à la Rent and Les Misérables), have distinct songs that worm their way into your memory. If/Then has melodic monologues and dialogues, which really didn't do much for me.
Worked: Idina Menzel's songs. You don't cast Idina Menzel in your musical and not give her at least a couple of showstoppers to belt out. Surprising to no one, Menzel brings down the house in a couple of powerful solos, but as I mentioned before, there's nothing memorable about the songs themselves. Rather than leaving the theater remembering how great that musical number was, you leave remembering how great Menzel's voice is, but wishing you could remember any of the music or lyrics she performed.
Bottom Line: Anybody who is a fan of Broadway theater, or just musicals in general, is going to want to love If/Then, because it's bound to be known as "The new Idina Menzel musical." And if you love Menzel enough, that might be all you need to adore this production. But as a stand-alone musical, there is a lot lacking. If the production remains as-is when it makes its way to Broadway, I'm not sure what sort of life If/Then will have once its leading lady moves on. Hopefully the producers have Kristin Chenoweth's number on file.