Before I head to New York on my annual theater pilgrimage, I made one last LA theater stop for 2015 and checked out the national tour of If/Then, currently playing at the Pantages Theatre. If/Then ran on Broadway for a year beginning in 2014, and four members of the original Broadway cast—Idina Menzel (Tony nominated for this role), Anthony Rapp, LaChanze, and James Snyder—are currently reprising their roles on tour, making this quite a special treat for LA theatergoers.
If/Then’s creative team has a pedigree as impressive as its cast’s, with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the team behind Next to Normal, and direction by Michael Greif, known for his work on both Next to Normal and Rent. The plot is very high-concept for a stage musical. Elizabeth (Menzel) is a 40-year-old recent divorcee who moves back to New York City in search of a fresh start. In the very first scene, Elizabeth is presented with a choice—she can hang out in the park and look for love and new adventures with her hip new friend, Kate (LaChanze) or she can explore new career opportunities as a city planner with her college best friend/ex-lover Lucas (Rapp). From here the show splits into two timelines—in the first, she goes by Liz, and in the second she goes by Beth. The two stories are differentiated by different lighting schemes (reddish tones for Liz, blueish for Beth) and by glasses that Menzel dons only in the Liz scenes. See what I meant by high-concept?
I have a lot of conflicting feelings about If/Then that I will attempt to express beginning with an analogy—imagine a unique, ornate, gorgeous picture frame…with a basic, uninspired stock photo inside. The premise of this show is, in my opinion, fantastic—it contains some excellent commentary on the role of both choices and fate in all of our lives, through the lens of a very relatable main character who is the type to analyze and second-guess everything she does. But once you look beyond the ambitious structure, the plot within is unfortunately cliche and tired. Many of the obstacles Elizabeth encounters are expected, and there are moments such as a certain scene involving a plane in act two that felt incredibly trite.
As is to be expected from Kitt and Yorkey, the show contains a few truly standout songs—”Always Starting Over,” Liz’s 11 o’clock number, is a showstopper, so much so that Menzel included it in the setlist for her world concert tour earlier this year. I also really enjoyed another act two number, “Some Other Me,” which is sung by Menzel and Rapp (this cast is a real treat for Rent fans). In one of her most authentic moments, both Liz and Beth sing a song literally called “What the Fuck,” which I’m sure led to some interesting conversations for the many parents who brought young children to the show to see Elsa sing live. The rest of the music is a bit one-note and generally forgettable, but it has enough tracks worthy of replay to warrant the Best Score Tony nomination it received.
The cast, clearly the biggest draw this production has, certainly did not disappoint. Menzel has never sounded better and proved she is still incredibly capable of singing eight shows a week in a very demanding role. I really connected with her character, whom I will describe as “charmingly neurotic,” and the show did an excellent job of developing her personality to make her choices across two timelines feel justified. I only wish the supporting characters were as well-developed—frankly, Rapp, Snyder, and LaChanze probably deserve better than the rather shallow material they’re given to work with here, although they gave incredibly capable, engaging performances.
The thing that’s bugging me the most about my issues with this show is that I don’t know how to fix it. I am not a musical theater composer, lyricist, or writer by any means—I am merely an avid theater fan and amateur critic, and I do not pretend that I could write a better musical than this. But sometimes the problems are more clear-cut to me—for example, when I saw Matilda, I could see the excellent show buried underneath the clutter of a decent show. With If/Then, it’s just not that simple. I am very curious to know how well audience members with zero prior knowledge of the show’s parallel storylines were able to follow the action. Despite the lighting and glasses cues, I briefly asked myself more than once at the beginning of a scene which storyline we were in, and I had read about the show and listened to the music beforehand. Also, I can imagine those sitting further away than I was in a giant house like the Pantages may miss the glasses hint entirely. I am unsure how they could have made this clearer—bold differences in Menzel’s Liz versus Beth wardrobes or even hair came to mind, but would be impossible given how quickly the show shifts between the two. It’s possible there is a different version of the structure where rather than essentially alternating scenes there are longer chunks of each story with a clearer divide in between. It’s also possible this just isn’t a story that is easily told on stage.
Despite being disappointed by many of the storytelling choices, I can say unequivocally that I enjoyed this theater experience—the cast is superb, the show managed to not drag despite a run time of over two and a half hours, and I felt a kinship with Elizabeth, primarily thanks to Menzel’s stellar performance, that helped the emotional moments to land and cancel out at least a few of the logic bumps. I also quite liked the ending, for reasons I will not spoil. I understand why the original cast went on tour because, frankly, the material alone isn’t strong enough to stand without some star power. But if you are a fan of Menzel and a fan of ambitious, wholly original musical theater, then you will find plenty to enjoy here.
If/Then runs at the Pantages through January 3rd before moving on to other cities across the country. Menzel, Snyder, and LaChanze will appear at the next three stops only—San Diego, Tempe, and Costa Mesa. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.ifthenthemusical.com/.
A few quick notes—if you’re curious about the other big musical currently playing in LA, check out my review of Bridges of Madison County, playing now at the Ahmanson! On Stage & Screen will be on hiatus for about two weeks as I travel to New York to see Lazarus, Hamilton, Spring Awakening, and Fun Home, all of which I will share my thoughts on upon my return. Happy Holidays and as always, thank you for reading!