Wednesday, May 7, 2014

If Every Show Were This Daring, Then Broadway Would Be a Truly Magical Place

Review: If/Then

Idina Menzel returns to Broadway in the central role of If/Then, possibly the finest piece of stage acting she has ever done.

Let's get this out of the way: If/Then is not as good as Next to Normal.  But expecting Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's follow-up to that near-perfect Pulitzer Prize-winner to reach such lofty heights is an unreasonable standard to have, and makes the brazenly ambitious If/Then sound like a much bigger failure than it actually is.  While no means perfect, this entirely original musical is one of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying new works of the season, provided you're willing to stick with it through a sometimes muddled first act.  And just as they did for Alice Ripley, Kitt and Yorkey have written an absolute gift of a role for the immensely talented Idina Menzel, arguably having the biggest year of her career thanks to this and her work in Disney's smash-hit Frozen.

If/Then follows Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), a woman in her late 30s who has returned to New York following the end of her marriage.  She agrees to meet two friends in the park: Lucas (Rent star Anthony Rapp), her activist best friend and occasional lover from college, and Kate (Tony-winner LaChanze), the outgoing neighbor she just met while moving into her new apartment.  She is presented with a seemingly inconsequential choice - go with Lucas to a protest or spend the afternoon in the park with Kate - that sends her life in two entirely different directions, one career-oriented and one focused on her personal life.  The show cuts back and forth between her parallel potential lives (both timelines include an emotionally charged 39th birthday party and an unplanned pregnancy), ultimately asking the audience to consider such weighty issues as fate-versus-chance and career-versus-home-life.

While fascinating (and the very crux of the show), these parallel stories do present narrative challenges that bookwriter Yorkey and director Michael Greif don't entirely solve.  They've named the career-oriented persona Beth and dressed her in power suits and business attire, while the family-oriented Liz favors glasses and cardigans.  There are generally (but not always) color-coordinated lighting cues to help distinguish the two.  Yorkey's book works extra hard to weave in pertinent reminders of which set of circumstances applies to the current scene, and actually succeeds more often than not in making the references seem natural rather than forced.  Nevertheless, the first act in particular is hard to follow, and you are bound to miss some plot points the first time through despite Greif's fluid direction and Menzel's incredibly assured performance.

But just when you're ready to write the show off, something miraculous happens after intermission.  Suddenly the show clicks, and you realize that despite the confusion you gleaned all the information needed from the plot-heavy first act to set you up for the engrossing character study of the second.  With the necessary exposition out of the way, the show is free to explore the notion of regret and the road not taken, along with the often conflicting emotions of adult contemporary life.  Liz loves her family but is clearly frustrated she put her career on the back burner, while Beth feels validated and fulfilled by her job as a prominent urban planner but has precious few people to share in her success.  The show thankfully avoids portraying one choice as inherently better than the other; they are simply choices, both with major pros and cons, and as the show wisely argues it is ultimately up to the individual to decide what is best for him or her.

Kitt's score is intricate and expressive, although it mostly avoids the catchy melodic hooks that defined a good portion of his Next to Normal score; in fact, the show's weaker numbers are the ones that adhere to the more conventional verse-chorus-verse structure of musical theatre.  Yorkey's excellent lyrics are simultaneously conversational and profound, capturing the rhythms of contemporary New York speech (the show is, among other things, a love letter to the island of Manhattan).  The writing of If/Then is not perfect, but it does a large number of things remarkable well, a feat even more impressive considering there is no source material providing a roadmap for how to tell this story.

As previously mentioned, Menzel is sensational in the central role.  Her ten years away from Broadway haven't in any way diminished her considerable stage chops; if anything, her skills have only grown.  Menzel's performance is several steps above her Tony-winning turn as the misunderstood Elphaba in Wicked, demonstrating an unexpected emotional breadth and depth.  Yes, she sounds fantastic with her seemingly inexhaustible belt, but the true beauty of Menzel's work is the complex emotional shading she brings to each lyric and phrase.  She is charming, unexpectedly funny, and occasionally heartbreaking in a performance carried out with such warmth, intelligence, and charisma that is appears almost effortless despite the fact she rarely leaves the stage.  Her characters in Wicked and Rent will likely remain Menzel's signature roles, but If/Then represents the artistic pinnacle of her career as a stage actress thus far.

Although they don't get nicknames to distinguish their two personas, both Rapp and LaChanze do great work portraying Elizabeth's best friends in both timelines.  Rapp, with a voice seemingly unchanged from his days in Rent, is endearingly snarky as the crusading Lucas, and his rapport with Menzel clearly benefits from the pair's long off-stage history.  Lucas, established early on as bisexual, gets a boyfriend named David (Jason Tam) in one storyline, allowing Rapp to show a more vulnerable, playful side that results in some of the show's most heartwarming moments.  LaChanze, all sass and gutso as the out and proud lesbian Kate, wins the audience over by the sheer force of her personality in the same way her character does (Kate is constantly referring to her "dear friends who she just met").  LaChanze also has a dynamite duet with Jenn Colella as Kate's partner Anne, with Colella providing the most unexpectedly thrilling vocal pyrotechnics of the night.  There is also strong support provided by James Snyder as Josh and Jerry Dixon as Stephen, the main love interests for Liz and Beth respectively.

Michael Greif's staging keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, helping to cram a remarkable amount of story into the two and a half hour runtime.  Greif isn't always successful at clarifying the busy narrative, but it certainly isn't from lack of trying, and he does as well as anyone could be expected to do given the same material.  He makes continually interesting use of Mark Wendland's multi-faceted set (which includes several catwalks, a mirrored ceiling, AND a turntable), and guides the entire cast through the mazelike plot with aplomb.  Emily Rebholz's costumes provide subtle but crucial hints as to which timeline any particular scene is set in, while remaining stylish and pleasing to the eye (something often taken for granted in contemporary-set shows that can all too quickly go awry in the wrong hands).

Ultimately, If/Then is the most artistically daring show to open on Broadway this spring, and although its ambition causes it to occasionally stumble, the show is more successful than many would have you believe.  Brian Yorkey's book tackles a lot of big issues with intelligence and humor, while still maintaining the depth of character needed to keep the show emotionally engaging.  Idina Menzel is positively radiant in the gargantuan dual roles of Beth and Liz (Broadway hasn't seen a star vehicle of this caliber in years), returning after a ten-year absence with a performance so assuranced it feels as if she never left.  Menzel has repeatedly stated in interviews she was waiting for a piece she felt strongly about for her Broadway return, and her belief in If/Then is certainly validated.  Rarely is a show this emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating, and anyone who claims to want originality on Broadway owes it to themselves to see this remarkable piece.

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