There is always reason to rejoice when a new, truly original musical opens on Broadway. If/Then is an original story, not based on a movie, with an original score, not a compilation of pre-established songs shoehorned into a plot to make a musical. This is the real McCoy! The show is penned and composed by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), and directed by Michael Greif, the group that gave us Next to Normal. If/Then is a bit more ambitious than the latter for it involves a bigger cast and set design (Mark Wendland) and two stories running side by side. The concept is that Elizabeth, played by the show’s over-the-title star, Idina Menzel, might have had a very different life had she made different choices. We then see her go down two paths among the same supporting characters and how her differing choices affect all their lives.
Greif is not wholly successful in defining each path. Not knowing the concept in advance, one can easily get through the first act unaware of seeing two stories simultaneously. This creates constant questions about what is really supposed to be happening. Even when the concept is clear, it is still sometimes hard to switch gears and know which path is which. There are some transitions between the two stories that work nicely and occasionally Kenneth Posner’s lighting helps to define the difference, but this isn’t always the case and so this show comes off as a bit of a mess of story-telling.
Outside of that perplexing problem, there is much to like in this show. The score isn’t as dynamic as Next to Normal, but it serves the story well and is pleasant to listen to as it unfolds. Not until the very end does Idina Menzel get the kind of big power ballad her fans are waiting for, but she delivers it in her distinctive way, giving the show a final high point to satisfy all.
Mezel’s Rent co-star, Anthony Rapp, plays her bisexual college friend, Lucus. In one story-line he is feebly trying to rekindle his failed college romance with Elizabeth and in another he strikes up a gay romance with a doctor (Jason Tam) friend of a returning soldier (James Snyder) who marries Elizabeth. The soldier story-line is the most fully explored of the two paths. Snyder registers as a warm and loving husband and father to the couple’s new born baby (and is given one of the nicest songs in the show about new fatherhood), but his dedication to his work as a surgeon and military man create major conflicts.
LaChanze is wonderful as a brassy best friend to Elizabeth and Jenn Colella is a warm presence, playing her girlfriend. Their wedding marks the second gay marriage depicted in a Broadway show this season (Mothers and Sons is the other). The other big role of the show is Jerry Dixon as Stephen, the city politician who champions Elizabeth’s work as a city planner in New York. Mr. Dixon has so far been low profile regarding this production, but his role is important and he does fine work. A small, tight ensemble fills out the rest of the cast playing a general crowd of New York as well as stepping forward to take on small characters as needed. This isn’t a dancing show, but choreographer Larry Keigwin finds logical places for the ensemble to show off their dancing skills effectively.
What makes this show most distinctive is also what makes it most problematic—the concept of the two paths shown side by side. The fact that the plot is muddy because of the two stories hurts the show, but without the concept, one story or the other might not be complex enough to work on its own. What overrides the problem of the show is a wonderful cast, working beautifully together. The look of the show is fresh and unlike many other contemporary musicals seen before. Also, the show is strong enough to survive cast replacements for it is not so wedded to Idina Menzel’s particular gifts that it won’t survive her departure.
For more information and tickets go to www.ifthenthemusical.com.