'If/Then': Bright, Talent-Laden Production Not Quite Ready

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in If/Then
Joan Marcus National Theatre
Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in If/Then

I’m betting that “If/Then,” the new talent-laden musical in a rare pre-Broadway tryout run at the National Theatre through Dec. 8, will be a hit by the time it opens on Broadway in the spring of 2014.

Which is not to say it’s ready for Broadway yet, or that it’s a perfect show, or that it couldn’t stand some heavy cuts here and there or that it sometimes tries too hard to be clever and cutting-edge cool for its own good.

Still, here’s why I think it will attract a big audience: it’s very much a show about the times in which we live. It’s got a great score. It may be the first big Millennial Generation musical to hit the boards, although its characters run to Gen X age-wise. It is thus is in tune with the changing, renovating, liveable urban scene all over the country, including Washington, D.C., but definitely New York City, where it’s headed and for which it’s a kind of visual and musical love song.

Here are other virtues for this head-spinning show: it has Broadway pedigree written all over it. With this much talent involved in the show, whatever fixes are needed ought to be completed by the time it really matters. You can make your way along a path that runs from “Rent” and “Wicked” through the much acclaimed “Next to Normal" and find most of the people involved on stage and backstage in “If/Then.”

Tom Kitt, who wrote the music, and Brian Yorkey, who wrote the books and lyrics, and Michael Greif, who directed, all worked together on “Next to Normal,” as did producer David Stone. Stone also produced the hugely successful “Wicked,” which made a big Broadway star out of Idina Menzel when she played the role of the green-skinned witch Elphaba. Greif also directed the other big smash “Rent,” which got Menzel her first Tony nomination for her portrayal of Maureen. (Menzel won a Tony for “Wicked.”) Co-star Anthony Rapp was also in “Rent” with Menzel. This may account for a certain comfort zone among the performers and the scene on stage, although that connection needs to be established more with the audience as well.

Menzel is another big asset for “If/Then.” She is a genuine Broadway diva star in the best sense of the word. She’s got acting chops—and a voice that ranges all over the planet and is liqueur smooth, powerful as a train which knows where it’s going, emotionally on target. Without Menzel, you haven’t got much of anything. She convinces the audience that all of this is important and makes perfect sense with every musical note and facial expression. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that she’s enormously appealing and beautiful, green witch aside. She plays a character who has the serious romantic attentions of at least three men in the cast—her boss, an old college sweetheart who’s also gay, and a two-deployment veteran (and a doctor, no less) who drops his duffel bag and falls in love the first time he sees her.

This may be the first musical in recorded history that has an urban planner as its heroine. How cool can that be? This is a show about choices, if you haven’t guessed from the title. Elizabeth in her late thirties has come to New York and is fresh from a broken marriage, trying to start over. She has made an instant friend in kindergarten teacher Kate (the high-flying, terrific LaChanze from “The Color Purple") and re-united with college flame Lucas, a squatter and housing activist. She meets Josh, the returning vet in uniform who stirs her heart. But Beth is a bit of a data nerd, as well as an idealist. So, her choices are: take the hot, urban planning job from potential (but married) mentor Stephen (Jerry Dixon), take up with best friend Lucas, or take a teaching job and marry the stone-cold tender hunk Josh from Nebraska.

Life, Kate tells her, is all about chance meetings and events that come from them—decisions to do this or do that.

What’s a girl to do? Well, the book has her do it all—she slides in and out of two lives, often awkwardly, so that we get to see and hear the results of both choices, an often clumsy process where you don’t always know who’s there. Clarity is not yet a part of the menu here, and that goes for the songs which aren’t always clearly identifiable. When Menzel sings “Here I Go,” you get in one not the exact, long length of the journey. This structure, though—Liz and Beth, in and out—hasn’t been fully worked out to avoid puzzlement by the audience.

I’m not a prude, but it seems to be almost an established sign of cool to work the f-word into any contemporary theatrical proceedings, in titles and dialogue, but now in songs, too. Mamet could do this well. Here, it’s just a kind of cheap laugh which I hope doesn’t make the song an anthem. I understand the sentiment but not the need for its expression musically.

The show has another plus: Mark Wendland’s crisp, sparkling, almost breezy set design, allowing for the instant incarnation of bedrooms, boardrooms, trains and such, as well as a paradise-type park, aided and abetted by a big floating wall-to-wall mirror used inventively.

A pre-Broadway tryout is a rarity in D.C. these days, and you can tell there’s a lot riding on this. There’s been plenty of talk and buzz on Facebook, and in early peek-a-boo mentions, most of which are excitable and favorable, but not all.

A good gauge were comments I heard from two youngish, 30-something women: “We thought it was a little long and ought to be cut, but I think it spoke to our demographics.”

It didn’t speak to my demographics (baby boomer). Nevertheless, I have to admit that the show moved me, almost in spite of myself and itself. That, I think, is due to the really splendid cast—and, for sure, the voice and heart of Idina Menzel, a true Broadway star, still defying gravity.

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Wed, 23 Apr 2014 18:06:39 -0400

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