By Bill Beard
“Have you ever wondered what your life might have been like If you had just made that other choice back Then.“
If/Then, as a title for a Broadway musical, offers very little information about plot, or setting, or character or much of anything. On the other hand, it leaves almost everything to the imagination. Actually, by the end of the performance, it turns out to have probably been perfectly appropriate.
The promo blurb offers: “If/Then is a contemporary new musical that follows two distinct storylines in the life of Elizabeth, a city planner who moves back to New York to restart her life in the city of infinite possibilities. When her carefully designed plans collide with the whims of fate, Elizabeth’s life splits into two parallel paths. If/Then follows both stories simultaneously as this modern woman faces the intersection of choice and chance”.
Sound like two stories, two plots? Both at once? Right. With both parts played by one actress? Exactly! Elizabeth as “Liz” and “Beth”! Sound pretty complicated? It is!
If/Then is an original Broadway musical which reunites the creative team who gave us the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical Next to Normal (composer Tom Kitt, book/lyricist Brian Yorkey and director Michael Greif); and there too, they were dealing with a sort of double life plot: revolving around a bi-polar mother dealing with her daily life and living family, while simultaneously creating a world and a daily routine with the spectre of her dead son (acted on stage by a living actor and as part of her living routine).
Now it’s often difficult enough for an audience to follow one complex plot line; but in If/Then, we are expected to mix and mingle two stories, about two life lines, in the same timeline, the same locale and with the same friends, and…. played by one actress. Difficult enough for any audience, even without a couple of cocktails before dinner. But of course the real challenge is for the actress who must handle this self-imposed, pseudo-schizophrenic situation.
The success of If/Then’s original New York run (one year, 428 performances), was primarily due to the celebrity stature of the leading lady, Idina Menzel, famous as the original Elphaba (the Green Witch) in Wicked. And it was Ms. Menzell who encouraged the producers to do the national tour of the show, currently running at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Indeed she led the show until recently, but has now been replaced by her understudy, Jackie Burns, who is absolutely splendid in this demanding role.
One might expect an “understudy” to perhaps be something of a shadow of the original. Not Ms. Burns! She has enough of the same look, the same qualities, the same aura, as Menzel, to be perfectly comfortable in the role(s). But in addition, she brings her own truthfulness, an earnestness, an excitement that charms us immediately. Having played Elphaba in Wicked both on tour and on Broadway, Ms. Burns also possesses the pipes to handle the demands of Kitt’s score for If/Then; and she has her chance in the character’s emotionally charged Always Starting Over near the end of Act II. Indeed, Ms. Burns is still “defying gravity”!
Fortunately, she is surrounded by a company of dedicated performers who share the same emotional dedication to the show. Tamyra Gray as “Liz”’s friend Kate, is exceptional. Her vibrant spirit is absolutely compelling; who could resist her?
Anthony Rapp as “Beth’s” friend Lucas, is the only member of the original Broadway cast still on tour; and tour audiences should be thankful, because he is excellent, beautifully balancing the character’s uncertainties and strengths, while giving him an honest and endearing charm.
“Liz” meets her soldier hunk early in the show: Josh, an army doctor just back from his second tour of duty. Their hit ‘n miss beginning develops into marriage and two sons, and Josh’s eventual return to service and being killed overseas. Matthew Hydzik does a nice job of handling this underwritten role, creating a lovably humble, but nobly honest guy.
The supporting performers were uniformly excellent: Janine DiVita as Anne, Daren Herbert as Stephen, and Marc de la Cruz as David, each required to adjust and readjust with each switch between “Liz” and “Beth” to the appropriate reality of the moment.
The chorus was filled with a variety of types, evidently representing all those sorts of folks one might find in New York City, Madison Square Park to be exact. The singing was fine, the acting appropriate. But I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad for them all. They seemed as though they were from some other show, left there to provide ’atmosphere’, but not really part of the story. The choreography was extraneous, neither here nor there.
The music doesn’t really pretend to reach that of Next to Normal. In fact, I wondered why Ms. Menzel was so drawn to this score. Although the first act was pleasantly light and fast paced; and though the lyrics were appropriately fitting, there was not a great deal of plot-moving substance. Except of course, for “Liz-Beth’s” show stopper, What the F….!
On the other hand, Act II provided much better. Some Other Me, a duet for Beth and Lucas early in the act, provided substance and meaning and musical power. And following near after, another great duet, Best Worst Mistake, for Lucas and David. And of course, Ms. Burns powerful tour de force, Always Starting Over.
If/Then is not your typical Broadway Musical. It’s different. It’s experimental. It’s fascinating. It’s actually a marvelously innovative piece of theatre art. It is a show not to be missed by any musical theatre lover. It deals with real life in a completely new artistic form. It is an intimate story; yet it’s a story about life as a shared experience. You will find unexpected truth, both in the characters and in the tales they tell; and the unusual format of the plot, though perhaps at first confusing, will in retrospect give you much more food for thought and challenge. Go.
If/Then plays through this Sunday at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. For tickets or information call 800-775-2000, or go to BroadwayInChicago.com.