‘If/Then’: What if musical were as good as performers?
Beth — in a deeply felt, richly sung performance by Idina Menzel — is a bright urban planner, quickly rising to the top in New York’s city planning department while agonizing over her messy non-love life. Liz — also played, no less potently, by Menzel — is more successful in love, backing into a full-fledged soul-mate marriage and motherhood with operatic self-doubts and no-less-tragic consequences.
Don’t blame Menzel’s powerhouse performance(s) if you can’t always tell which woman is which in “If/Then,” the brilliantly executed but underwhelming musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) that opened Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Orpheum Theatre. Menzel is playing the same character, Elizabeth, in two sometimes-confusingly intertwined story lines.
The central conceit of Kitt and Yorkey’s follow-up to their hit “Next to Normal” — developed with the same director, Michael Greif — isn’t a “Two Faces of Elizabeth” exploration of conflicting personalities contained in one body. It’s a look at the different paths her life might take based on a single choice she makes when she arrives back in Manhattan after a failed marriage in Phoenix.
At 38, Elizabeth’s numbers-crunching, self-doubting, love-scarred personality is pretty much set. It’s a question of how much chance, fate or a momentary whim changes the course of a life. If that perhaps promising premise doesn’t bear much fruit in terms of drama, it’s a pretty good performance vehicle not only for Menzel, for whom the part was written, but also for fellow stars LaChanze and Anthony Rapp. The best thing about the opening show in SHN’s new season is the rare chance to see a national tour featuring virtually the original Broadway leads.
The beaming, warm-toned LaChanze is a buoyantly upbeat delight as Liz and Beth’s new best friend Kate, lighting up the stage with an “It’s a Sign” rallying cry for trusting in chance love encounters on the subway. Kate’s passionate romance with Janine DiVita’s thoroughly engaged Anne is a bright subplot.
Rapp, like Menzel from the original cast of “Rent,” has terrific rapport with her onstage as her oldest friend and former lover Lucas, even if his character is an inconsistent hodgepodge of traits. Their voices complement each other gorgeously on a few duets. So do Menzel’s and James Snyder’s, also reprising his Broadway role as Josh, the soldier-doctor Liz falls in love and has children with, to dynamic vocal effect (“Here I Go,” “I Hate You”).
The songs, handled with verve by music director Carmel Dean’s sharp orchestra, seem mostly indistinguishable but work well in the moment — to tell key parts of the story and showcase Menzel’s supple, dramatic vocal skills and ability to belt a power ballad with extended notes that seem to grow deeper and expand forever.
What neither the songs nor the book do, however, is justify the angst or help us understand Elizabeth better. As smooth and engaging as Greif’s production is, energized by Larry Keigwin’s peppy, urban-pop choreography, “If/Then” begins to feel too long for what it delivers thematically. But Menzel, LaChanze, Rapp and company keep you invested in almost every moment.