If/Then: Maybe Not—Theatre

If/Then,” the new musical starring Idina Menzel, comes to DC’s National Theatre with high expectations for Broadway. Based on previews, those expectations might need to be tempered.ifthen2

Directed by Michael Greif, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, “If/Then” is the story of 40-year-old Elizabeth, who has moved back to New York City following the breakup of her marriage. Her new life kicks into gear in a New York City park. But which life? And therein lays the tale.

“If/Then” is a form of the movie, “Sliding Doors.” If this path is taken, then this will happen. If the other path is taken, then that will happen. As the story first unfolds, it’s not readily apparent that two different stories are being told almost simultaneously. Once that is understood, you begin to relax and appreciate…or not…what is happening on stage.

There’s a reason Idina Menzel won a Tony for “Wicked.” She has a wonderfully powerful voice and that voice holds her in good stead as Elizabeth. She’s also a first-rate actress and the fact that you can feel and sense her emotions clear up in the balcony is testament to that. Unfortunately the score doesn’t provide enough great songs worthy of her voice. She has one clever number in the middle and a truly terrific number near the end of the play, but the rest of her songs are rather ho-hum.

I’m not certain why LaChanze was cast as Elizabeth’s friend, Kate. A  Tony award winner for “The Color Purple,” she really isn’t given much to do and her songs are not memorable. Anthony Rapp as Lucas is very good as Kate’s best friend from college. He, too, has a few songs, and while his voice is fine, is not anything you will remember once you leave the theatre. James Snyder is very convincing as Elizabeth’s love interest, Josh. At first his voice seems nice enough, but then he takes it to another level when he hits some high notes. His “My Kid” is a show-stopper.

The idea of showing us life’s “what if’s” is intriguing. The problem with “If/Then’s” execution is that we see not only Elizabeth’s two paths, but also fully developed stories for the two supporting characters in her life…in both paths. It adds a lot of time to the play and, frankly, her friends’ romantic stories aren’t very compelling and neither are their songs.

For a musical, there’s not a lot of musicality to “If/When.” The play is meant to be “real” which can explain the lack of dancing and the rather ordinariness of the songs.

Other than Menzel, the real stars of the show are the sets.  Mark Wendland’s designs are spectacular. The parks, the subway, the buildings…all are wonderfully imaginative.

Considering that “If/Then’s” creative crew– Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt–are Tony winners for prior work, this play is disappointing. Overall, “If/When” underwhelms and in its present form, I don’t see how it settles in to a long Broadway run.

“If/Then” runs through December at the National Theatre.

2 nuggets out of 4

 

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