If/Then

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

The fresh new musical If/Then—now in a tryout run at the National Theatre on its way to Broadway (where it is destined to be embraced by theatergoers who will want to see it again and again)—is more than a “feel good” show. It’s a full-on, full-hearted “feel alive” experience. It’s more than entertaining, tuneful, smart. It’s more than engrossing, intriguing, touching. It’s an inspiration to fall back in love with one’s own life.

Big Broadway musicals  don’t generally generate such self-reflection—but If/Then sure does, and not just because Mark Wendland’s ingenious set features a huge mirror tilting overhead. If/Then, directed with deft honesty by Michael Greif,  invites a rare kind of participatory audience response. It can make one feel—at a lilt in a song, or a line in a scene—that somehow the authors have been eavesdropping on one’s mind and monitoring one’s heart.

If/Then‘s structure is unusual and takes a little getting used to, because it follows the same main character, Elizabeth, through two divergent story lines. The show is built upon the simple yet profound notion that life is full of random encounters and events, and we necessarily make our choices and take our chances without knowing where they will lead. But, the show reminds us, that’s no excuse for resignation to one’s “fate.” On the contrary, when we take bold swings at the curves life throws us, we become more who we were meant to be. Book writer Brian Yorkey’s lyrics sparkle with gems of emotional resonance, and the show’s richly expressive songs, composed by Tom Kitt, sustain the “what if?” theme with uncanny authenticity. Their genius is to capture the contingencies of life as it is lived right now.

Elizabeth is played powerfully and poignantly by Idina Menzel, who seems to sing effortlessly, with a voice that can sear and soar. From the opening big number, “If I Told You/If,” all the way through her show-stopping solo “Always Starting Over” near the end, Menzel’s star-quality performance lights up the stage with a luminosity magnitude of the first order. At the same time Menzel invites us into Elizabeth’s world with affectionate humility—never seeming other than someone real, someone we might know and care about in everyday life.

In their brilliant breakout musical, Next to Normal, Kitt and Yorkey gave us as their main character a mentally unstable suburban wife and mother whose life is falling apart. In If/Then they give us another wholly original female lead, a modern metropolitan professional woman trying to put the pieces of her life back together. Their compassion and audacity combine with their astronomic talent to become a breakthrough in musical theater—one that reverberates with astonishing aftershocks from  seismic relational shifts.

Elizabeth, educated in New York City as an urban planner, moved to Phoenix with her husband. But, as Elizabeth learned to her dismay, he expected her to be solely a wife. Now in her late thirties, she wants more, so she has left behind her loveless marriage and moved  back to New York City to start her life over.  That’s when, at a figurative fork in the road, two versions of her life unfold—one as “Liz” and one as “Beth”—and the show cross-cuts between them, at times within the same musical numbers.

Liz becomes a schoolteacher; Beth reenters the field of urban planning. Liz gets married and has children; Beth remains single and pursues a high-level career. Adding complexity to this narrative device, the same supporting characters appear in both Liz’s and Beth’s story. Their stories interweave, and each gets at least one great true-to-their-character song, which they deliver with uniformly gorgeous voices. In “It’s a Sign” her friend Kate (LaChanze) urges her to take another chance on love. Her friend  Lucas (Anthony Rapp) celebrates the human interconnection in which hearts intersect with “Ain’t No Man Manhattan.” Josh (James Snyder), an Army surgeon whom Liz marries, courts her with kindness in “You Never Know”—even as Beth’s married boss Stephen (Jerry Dixon), catches her eye. Liz/Beth’s alternate romantic biographies are enhanced by the stories of Kate and her lover Anne (Jenn Colella), who share a tender reconciliation in “No More Wasted Time,” and Lucas and his lover David (Jason Tam), whose “The Best Worst Mistake” is both cheeky and touching.

All these multiple narratives with multiple implications render life’s ambiguities and uncertainties in a way that is far from being unnerving or unsettling. Instead they serve to reassure us we are not alone in wondering whether we’ve picked the best path. Nor are we alone in realizing—as does Liz/Beth in the haunting “You Learn to Live Without”—that no path is perfect.

Another dimension of If/Then that makes it such a revelation and a pleasure is the ease with which it reflects so many issues and social changes that have swept through contemporary life. From the economics of affordable housing to same-sex marriage and parenting to the Iraq war to women’s equality, the references in Yorkey’s startlingly truthful lyrics remind us of not only who we are but what times we live in. The cumulative effect is like a bright warm glow that helps us see more clearly, feel more deeply, and want to live more bravely.

There’s a lovely scene in the first act that for anyone who has ever been a New Yorker is like a fond letter from a dear friend. It’s called “A Map of New York,” and in Kenneth Posner’s delightful lighting design, a map of the subway system lights up on the stage floor and is reflected above in the mirror. When this show moves on to Broadway, it will have gone back to that dear friend, back home where it belongs. And I expect it to stay there a long, long while.

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