If/Then (take three: Broadway)

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

The musical with the biggest heart you can imagine is now back home in the Big Apple, and just like its main character, Elizabeth (the incomparable Idina Menzel), it is starting over in Manhattan, right where it  belongs.

I admit to having first met and fallen in love with If/Then during its out-of-town fling with Washington, D.C. I was a devoted and faithful admirer.  I did not stint in my praise. I did not falter in my passion. And I was so smitten I followed the show to Broadway to kindle that romance.

But, you know, there are always niggling questions hovering over every reunion with a long-lost adored one. (Okay, we had been apart only a few months, but infatuation’s  impatience made it feel forever.) I heard there had been some changes—dramatic self-improvement I was told. Oh dear, I worried. Would I recognize my beloved?  Would I again be moved by the enormous emotional intelligence and lyrical beauty that first attracted me?  Would the heartfelt songs and storylines still ring true? Would the performances still pulse with the same purity and power? Would my soul leap once more in the presence of relational honesty, authentic complexity, and affectional diversity such as I had never thought possible in life much less in a musical?

Or would I come to find out my beloved had had work done—and it was one of those face-lifts that numbs expressivity and strips away character?

I need not have worried. The If/Then on the boards now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street is a glorious celebration of life and love and human longing to become who we are—and it’s even better than before.  Anyone who leaves If/Then uninspired to live more fully, love more openly, and aspire more tenaciously—well, you might want to check your pulse.

The first scene is in Madison Square Park where—on a set designed sleekly by Mark Wendland, on an afternoon lit lucidly by Kenneth Posner, as a lively assortment of New Yorkers lustily choreographed by Larry Keigwin sing of how life starts over each day (“What If”)—Elizabeth fatefully sets foot on two different paths. Until recently she lived in Phoenix, in an unhappy marriage. On the cusp of turning forty, she has left her husband and returned to Manhattan, with a hurt heart, guarded hope, and a graduate degree in urban planning.  On one of the plot’s two paths, she becomes Liz, gets a job teaching, falls in love with a  sweet guy who’s a physician Army reservist, and has children…  On the other path she becomes Beth, embarks on a high-powered city-government career in urban planning, has an almost-affair with her married boss, has a fleeting tryst with her bisexual boyfriend from college, and ends up childless….

As that  dual storyline unfolds—through Brian Yorkey’s astoundingly truthful book and lyrics  and Tom Kitt’s resoundingly heartfelt music—If/Then captures the catches in every modern woman’s conflicting choices. In doing so this production—briskly directed by Michael Greif—sets the bar for insight, integrity, and intelligence on the musical stage higher than ever before.

The innovative yet tricky part of the script where the two diverging paths are set forth has been smartly sharpened since last I saw the show. Elizabeth’s college chum Lucas (the affably self-conscious Anthony Rapp) and her brand-new best friend Kate (the vocal life-force LaChanze) each clearly take Elizabeth in the two different directions. To Lucas, she’s now Beth. To Kate, she’s now Liz—who by chance happens to meet a soldier named Josh just back from deployment (James Snyder, whose voice is as outstanding as his character is upstanding).

Kate, herself enamored of  Anne (the enjoyably ardent Jenn Colella), wastes no time urging Liz to make tracks and nab a man: “It’s a Sign,” she sings to that effect, in a subway car full of unlikely prospects. Kate also makes Liz don a pair of glasses, ostensibly to attract a guy who likes smart women, but beneficially to give a visual cue to who’s who (glasses = Liz; no glasses = Beth—another clarifying touch since D.C.).

Meanwhile Beth the urban planner gets hired by a former grad school classmate named Stephen (Jerry Dixon, a hunk in a suit with a huge voice to boot), who shares with her his dream of upbuilding the city (“A Map of New York”). He’s married, not happily, and there’s a spark of attraction between them.

Back in Liz’s world, Josh touchingly tries to overcome her reluctance to fall in love again (“You Never Know”). She doesn’t quite do so.

Back in the world of urban affairs, Lucas, who’s a housing activist, sings a rousing song of class-conscious connectedness (“No Man Manhattan”). It’s a wonderful scene in which the show’s populist perspective gets set stirringly to music and its progressive politics are not toned down.

Meanwhile in an apartment that is by turns Liz’s then Beth’s,  Josh and Liz consummate their love. Later Stephen comes by on business, Beth abruptly kisses him, and he flees. Awkward! Menzel sings a song to herself into a bathroom mirror reflecting on these surprising/compromising turns in her two characters’ love lives. It’s show-stoppingly hilarious, and its frank title (“What the Fuck?”) may be why the Playbill has no song list.

Elizabeth now has two wooers. Liz has Josh, with whom in one scene they sing of falling in love  (“Here I Go”). Beth meanwhile has Lucas, who in a subsequent scene sings tenderly of carrying a torch for her (“You Don’t Need to Love Me”).

Cut to Kate, who’s a kindergarten teacher and who, in a lesson about great women in history, tells her class about Elizabeth’s courageous taking charge of her life. In the D.C. production Kate did so metaphorically in a song I appreciated a lot called “The Story of Jane.” That song is gone, but in its place is an even more moving and eloquent one, “No More Wasted Time,” which beautifully amplifies the show’s seize-the-day theme.

By the end of Act One, Elizabeth’s two parallel story lines are in motion and a well of emotion has begun to overflow. Still ahead in Act Two are more surprising turns in the road—including Lucas’s new  boyfriend David (the adorably ebullient Jason Tam), a pediatrician colleague of Josh, who introduced them. There’s a marvelous moment when three pairs of lovers—one female-male (Liz and Josh), one male-male (Lucas and David), and one female-female (Kate and Anne) are all singing onstage at once, and it’s like a rainbow of romance somewhere over the moon.

Not all is happiness. Even hearts so full are sometimes broken. But that’s the chance one takes to love. And no one loves deeply without taking that chance.

By the time near the end when Idina Menzel belts out her big number “Always Starting Over,” we experience one of those great musical high points of which legends are made, and we are enthralled by theatrical greatness.

My fears have been allayed that If/Then would get to Broadway with stuff fixed that was never broken. Kudos to the producers for keeping the entire cast and creative team intact. There’s genuine collective genius going on here, and they wisely did not mess with it.  The changes all enhance the inspiring storytelling. The improvements all serve the heart and soul that were already there.

I was not wrong to risk opening my heart to this show. It has faithfully kept its promise and then some. If/Then is an uplifting gift that keeps on giving.

Might you fall in love with it too? This much I can promise you: The chances are very, very good.

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The original Broadway cast recording of If/Then will be released by Sony Masterworks Broadway on June 3, 2014.

 

 

 

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