By Kyle Osborne
Forgive one for using a noun as an adjective, but the best way to describe “If/Then”, the Broadway-bound starring vehicle for Idina Menzel, is to say that it’s very, um…Broadway. The creative team behind the hit musical “Next To Normal”, which also had its pre-Broadway run in D.C., have seemingly plucked every Broadway-esque flourish from musical predecessors in history, to come up with a play that features a larger than life set, rock concert lighting, big numbers requiring its leads to push their voices to the limits, and performances that wring every drop of emotion from the audience. It’s almost perfect…
Except for the story line. Which is a mess.
Let me try to say it in as few words as possible—the title refers to our leading lady’s dilemma. Menzel plays Elizabeth, a super smart urban planner who, if she chooses one path, she gets more lucky in love, less so in business—OR, if she chooses another path, her career skyrockets, but at the expense of relationships and, without giving anything away, perhaps with risk to one’s life! The stakes are high, but by intermission, I realized I’d only just caught on to a device that had been going on since curtain—that device being “This storyline is “A” and the other storyline is “B”. Only by this time, I’d forgotten whether “A” included one character, but not the other—is that character in both “A” and “B” ? And, by the way, with both choices coming at financial and emotional costs to Elizabeth, you feel like the story should give the poor girl a break.
At intermission, the lady seated next to me, a Menzel fan so devoted that she had come down from New York…again, asked, “What do you think so far?” I said, “Oh, my God, Idina’s voice is incredible! Actually, the whole cast sounds amazing.” Looking right into my eyes, she said, “You’re confused, aren’t you?” “Well, a little, I guess.” “Don’t worry about it,” she reassured me, “I was here last week and they’ve already changed some things to make it more clear—plus, I heard that if the lights are orange-ish it means one storyline, and blue means the other.” Special thanks to my fellow patron, whose name I didn’t catch.
Here I should explain: This pre-Broadway run (with a reported New York opening of Spring 2014) is a chance to work the bugs out, to cut here or add there. It’s meant to be worth your money (more on that presently) but it’s not necessarily the same show that will open several months from now. With millions already invested, and an awareness that tweaks need to happen and right soon, there’s no doubt that this show could end up being a hit and make Menzel, once again, the talk of the town. After all, it’s been ten years since she starred in “Wicked.”
The good news is that the performances from at least 4 of the 5 main characters are so well done, so breathtakingly on, that the narrative’s liabilities are mostly forgivable. The first word as the curtain rises is “Hello,” and though it’s meant to be a greeting to whoever is on the phone with Idina, the audience cheers a response so enthusiastically loud, it’s as if performer and audience have instantly bonded.
The songs are catchy and they do go a long way toward laying out the motives and thoughts of a complex character. Menzel’s former co-star in the original cast of “RENT,” Anthony Rapp, plays either a man who is in a committed same sex relationship OR he pines for a romantic connection with his long-time friend, Elizabeth. At any rate, Rapp sings a song called “You Don’t Need to Love Me,” that will bring you to tears. Like Menzel, Rapp’s numbers are asking 110% from his voice, and he/they deliver. How in the world are they going to do 8 shows a week in New York? Probably by only speaking a couple of hours a day. Gorgeous notes, hit right in the sweet spot. Same goes for James Snyder as the Army hunk who falls for Elizabeth on first sight, and the brilliant energy that effortlessly pours from the actress LaChanze, who plays Elizabeth’s friend, Kate, has the whole house smiling for at least one number. Menzel’s big, go for the last row song is “Always Starting Over,” and it really feels like it should be the last song before the curtain falls—it’s that kind of emotional finale—like Barbra Streisand’s last moment in the Amsterdam Theatre in “Funny Girl.” Alas, the thunderous applause and the sense that folks are getting ready to stand up and continue the ovation, is thwarted by the lights coming back up for…more story.
There hasn’t been a deeper bench for a musical in quite a while, and these actor/singers are as polished and primed as one could hope for. But If some wrinkles aren’t ironed out soon, Then this already good show will fall well short of its potential for greatness.
“If/Then” continues at The National Theatre through December 8th. Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets, Mark Wendland; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; choreography, Larry Keigwin; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Brian Ronan; music direction, Carmel Dean. With Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence, Joe Cassidy, Miguel Cervantes, Ann Sanders . About 2 hours 50 minutes. Tickets, $53 to $253. Visit www.thenationaldc.com or call 800-514-3849.