IF/THEN, National Tour at the Oriental Theatre, Review – Exploring the Roads Not Taken

 

We’ve all wondered what our lives would be like had we gone down a different path. If we’d taken that other job offer, gone to a different college, moved to another city, not cancelled that date, gone on that trip, or stayed together with an ex, what might’ve been different? Second-guessing our decisions in life is something we all do, especially the millions of us who are easily inclined to regret.

 

Tamyra Gray (Kate), Jackie Burns (Elizabeth), Anthony Rapp (Lucas), and the cast of "If/Then"

 

Looking at it from this angle, the new musical “If/Then”, a show that explores two paths in life through the use of alternate realities with our main protagonist, should resonate with all of us. Unfortunately, through an overstuffed book, questionable design choices, and a homogenate pop-Broadway score it only partially does. Wondering about life’s many choices may be universal, but the far-fetched destinations shown in “If/Then” definitely are not.

 

The good news is that despite its many flaws “If/Then” is still very enjoyable, entertaining, and occasionally even touching. Admittedly, part of its appeal is that it comes with an already well-known “underdog” card. Non movie and jukebox musicals are sadly few and far between in national tours. So any show with this much fresh ingenuity and originally behind it is well worth rooting for. The other reason you’ll want to check out this show is to see the stunning portrayal of our lead by the talented actress, Jackie Burns. It is a beautifully acted and fiercely-belted performance that is truly not-to-be missed.

 

Overall, “If/Then” is far from terrible, but it’s also far from perfect.

 

Anthony Rapp (Lucas) and Jackie Burns (Elizabeth)

 

Newly divorced and on the cusp of turning 40, our heroine, Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), a former college professor on urban design, has just arrived in New York City to “start over” with her life and reconnect with old friends. There she finds herself enveloped by anxiety-driven urbanities dealing with problems that only those well-educated and financially able can relate to.

 

Elizabeth’s life-changing choice at the beginning is whether she should go with her friend Kate (Tamyra Gray) for a cup of coffee, or stay in the park with her other friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), and catch up. It’s a small choice, but either decision ultimately leads to a fundamentally different life.

 

Jackie Burns (Elizabeth) and Daren A. Herbert (Stephen)

 

We get to see her life unfold if she had made both choices as the story sets off in two parallel “twin-journeys” that we follow in unfolding interlaced moments for the rest of the musical. Elizabeth becomes “Liz” and “Beth” for the remainder of her two paths – the two are distinguished only by the nicknames her friends call her, at the same time our visual indicator is that the free-spirited “Liz” wears glasses, while the hard-working “Beth” prefers contacts (either that or “Beth” underwent laser surgery – and if so I thank the writers for not giving us a song explaining it).

 

“Beth” stays with Lucas and answers a call on her cell from her school buddy Stephen (Daren A. Herbert) who offers her a dream job in city planning where she works hard, but has difficulties in her personal life. While “Liz” (I’ll stop with their quotations hereafter) goes with Kate and ignores the call, thus ruining the job offer, but it allows her to have an unexpected encounter with Josh (Matthew Hydzik), an Army doctor that she eventually marries. As you can see, Beth’s focus is primarily on career success, whereas Liz’s path is centered on love and family.

 

Anthony Rapp (Lucas) and Marc Delacruz (David)

 

Why Elizabeth (that is, either Liz or Beth) couldn’t handle having both a love and a rewarding job, like millions of women in this country, is one of the more troubling aspects that the show never manages to answer. It’s true that the balance between work and life is becoming harder to maintain for many people in the demanding cut-throat work force. And to its credit “If/Then” does suggest that choosing a life of love equals greater happiness than from choosing one of a successful career. That may by their intent, and it’s a worthy one. But the insinuation that a woman must have either one or the other, not both, is more than a little disheartening.

 

Another point made in “If/Then” is that our lives are connected to those around us. This means that whatever choice Elizabeth makes ends up having a lasting and profound impact on her friends Kate and Lucas. It determines whether her bi-sexual friend Lucas, an idealistic community activist, meets and forms a happy life with an affluent doctor, David (Marc Delacruz), or if he’s forced to go through an unhappy life as her substitute boyfriend. It also determines whether or not her other friend Kate, a lesbian school teacher, has troubles of her own with Anne (Janine DiVita).

 

Jackie Burns (Elizabeth)

 

Anyone even halfway familiar with the 1998 movie “Sliding Doors” starring Gwyneth Paltrow (if you haven’t seen it stop reading now and go rent it), will recognize the glaring plot similarities with “If/Then” - so much so that at times you may wonder how much was inspired by the movie and how much was directly taken from it. There are differences for sure, not the least of which is that “If/Then” is a musical.

 

However, the biggest difference I had to note is that Paltrow’s London was truly a real city (and not just because it was filmed there). The city was gritty, dirty, crowded, and alive with all kinds of people from every walk of life. On the other hand, the New York featured in “If/Then” has that all-too sanitized fantasy aspect to it that only exists in musical theatreland. It’s a magical place where job offers roll in out of nowhere, men stand around in parks to ask you out (okay - not such a stretch), the city is affordable enough to live alone (big stretch), homeless are nonexistent, and people twirl around you with smiles and laughs. And while I’m at it, having our lead arrive from out-of-town to the big apple at the start is pretty much a clichéd Broadway plot device to say “life can truly begin now.” Just sayin’.

 

The Cast of "If/Then"

 

Written by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), the same creative team that gave us the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Next to Normal”, an emotionally raw musical about a woman struggling with bi-polar disorder. Here though they seem to have gone for more of a conventional approach. We even get an eleven-o-clock number near the end, though as performed by Ms. Burns it’s downright thrilling. Both Mr. Yorkey and Mr. Kitt deserve kudos for pushing the boundaries of what modern musicals can do. “If/Then” has a consistent and at times even rousing score. Just not a groundbreaking one.

 

One of the issues here is that Mr. Yorkey seems to be way more interested in writing about themes instead of writing about people. As a result we get song after interchangeable song being heavy on metaphors and light on actual character growth. Some songs even feel as if they were written separately from the show altogether. Still, I can’t help but admire Yorkey’s gift with words. He plays around with prosaic rhymes in such clever and funny ways in just the right places. This was especially noticeable during Josh’s two big numbers.

 

The Cast of "If/Then"

 

Yet the show seems to drag in the places where Yorkey repetitiously tries to hone in on the show’s many existential themes involving fate, chance, and destiny. It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t incorporate those elements into the lyrics of every number. Even the song titles hit you over the head with the themes and morals: “Love While You Can”, “You Learn to Live Without”, “What If?”, and “You Never Know”.

 

The best numbers, like “Hey, Kid”, “I Hate You”, “What the F****?”, and “Starting Over” are the most effective, not only because we finally get some great character growth, but also because they’re actual expressions of something being felt in the present moment. Whereas, “Walking by a Wedding” and “Some Other Me” for example, mostly just describe feelings that might be felt at some unknown date in the future. It’s harder to emotionally invest in that. The show works best in its solo moments, where our characters are given the freedom to reveal a hidden part of themselves, while the ensemble and duet songs tended to remain flat.

 

Jackie Burns (Elizabeth) and Matthew Hydzik (Josh)

 

There’s also a lack of stylistic differences in the music between the two different journeys. Perhaps Beth could have been given softer songs while giving louder belt numbers to Liz. Or, even better, that only Liz and Beth had songs while everyone else outside of the central story were figures in her “what if” experiment.

 

Stylistic differences are missing in other areas too. For instance, costumer designer Emily Rebholz, could have given us clearer visual distinctions between Liz and Beth’s wardrobes. Instead they both mostly wore bland greyish colors. Mark Wendland’s set had a turntable stage but it was only used at random intervals throughout, sometimes even mid-song. Given the premise the turntable would have been an excellent opportunity to differentiate the two storylines. And not to be picky, but apparently no matter which choice Elizabeth makes she still ends up in the exact same spacious New York condo. Worse yet is Larry Keigwin’s robotic choreography, which featured various New Yorkers surrounding Elizabeth like a bunch of bouncy kids on a sugar high.

 

Jackie Burns (Elizabeth)

 

 “If/Then” would not be at the Oriental Theatre now if it were not for the star power of the lead actress in the Broadway production, Idina Menzel. Ever since she shined on stage as the original Elephaba in “Wicked” a decade ago Ms. Menzel has amassed a huge young fan base that kept this little show afloat, perhaps even marginally profitable (though the producers have yet to disclose that).

 

That said, Menzel was initially scheduled to star in this tour for its entire run. Broadway in Chicago certainly prepared for it by booking it in the biggest touring house in the city anticipating a large turnout by her many young fans. But the laboring demands of touring have taken its toll and Ms. Menzel officially left this tour late last month and her understudy Jackie Burns has taken over for the remainder of its run.

 

Though Menzel’s departure may have put a disappointing dent in ticket sales I can attest that the show itself has certainly not suffered from lack of talent. Ms. Burns gives a smashing, defiant, and emotionally searing performance that is truly worth the ticket price alone. Burns is both grounded and energized playing a woman dealing with constant frustrations, heartbreak, and even tragedy as Liz/Beth struggles to triumph over her adversities.

 

Anthony Rapp (Lucas)

 

While “If/Then” is mostly centered around Elizabeth we also get some color from our other stars. The exuberant Tamyra Gray, a former “American Idol” contestant, plays Kate with a quirky likeableness. Matthew Hydzik is terrific given the one-note role he has as Josh. His sexual chemistry with Burns’ Liz is spot-on, and the nuances he throws into his solo moments give him a charming personality that makes us understand why Liz would fall for him so hard.

 

Although Anthony Rapp gives us a well-rounded performance to the wry activist Lucas, it’s still hard to watch him without imagining Rapp as playing a grown-up version of his character Mark in “Rent” (coincidentally or not both Menzel and Rapp were in the original “Rent” cast together and Michael Grief directed both).

 

Bottom Line: “If/Then” is recommended. While it has more than the usual bumps in its overstuffed and messy plot structure (there’s even a near plane crash in one story line), the premise itself is still inventive, even engaging. There’s a sincere heart to this piece that is missing from most new musicals. We all wonder about roads not taken. Many people live their entire adult lives wallowing in regret about past decisions. “If/Then” tells us instead to live for today by loving those around us, that every day is a fresh new start in life, and that fate has a way of steering us towards a destiny. Though it’s a little corny and too on-the-nose in its delivery, it’s still a worthwhile and affirming sentiment worth embracing.


IF/THEN – Broadway In Chicago

Running Time: 2 Hours and 35 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission

LocationFord Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago IL 60601

Runs through: March 6, 2016

Curtain Times: Show times vary. For the complete performance schedule, please visit the Broadway In Chicago website.

Tickets and Reservations$25.00 - $98.00. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices including 24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St., 18 W. Monroe St. and 175 E. Chestnut. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000. They can also be purchased at all Ticketmaster retail locations. As well as online (see link above).

Group Tickets: Tickets for groups of 10 or more can be reserved by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710

Student Tickets: Available at select performances for purchase online in advance for members of TIX4STUDENTS

 

Cast: Jackie Burns (Elizabeth),Anthony Rapp (Lucas), Tamyra Gray (Kate), Matthew Hydzik (Josh), Janine DiVita (Anne; u/s Elizabeth), Daren A. Herbet (Stephen), Marc Delacruz (David), English Bernhardt (Paulette and Others), Charissa Bertels (Swing; u/s Kate; Anne), Xavier Cano (A Solider, Others; u/s David), Trey Ellett (Swing; u/s Lucas, David), Kyra Faith (Elena), Corey Greenan (Deputy Mayor, Architect, Others; u/s Josh, Stephen), Clifton Hall (Bartender, Others; u/s Lucas), Deedee Mango Hall (Cathy, Others; u/s Elizabeth, Kate); Tyler McGee (Street Musician, Others; u/s Josh), Joseph Morales (Swing), Emily Rogers (Swing), Alicia Taylor Tomasko (Flight Attendant, Others, Assistant Dance Captain)

Photo CreditsJoan Marcus

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