Friday, February 12, 2016

IF/THEN, in spite of a wonderful score, confuses some at Conner Palace

I happened to be in D.C. on November 5, 2013 when IF/THEN opened its preview run.  I was fortunate enough to get tickets to opening night. 

My reaction to the show was that Idina Menzel, the star of RENT and WICKED, who was playing the leading role in IF/THEN, was mesmerizing.  I found the music beautiful, the sets creative, and the electronic visuals attention-getting. Anthony Rapp, of RENT and YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN fame, played dual roles with musical and dramatic strength, and the rest of the cast was excellent.

However, the production was too long.  It was also hard to keep the separate storylines in focus as a woman leads parallel lives simultaneously, surrounded by a group of friends who play a part in each of her lives.

Having seen the previews, before the script and music adjustments were made, I went to the Connor Palace, with high anticipation, to see the road tour.

Interestingly, though Menzel is not in this cast, my opinions of the performances, the production and the script haven’t changed much.

IF/THEN is a musical with score by Tom Kitt and libretto by Brian Yorkey who also collaborated on the multi-award winning NEXT TO NORMAL.

It opened on Broadway to mixed reviews on March 5, 2014.  In spite of the reviews the show ran 401 performances and stayed open almost a year.  The box office surge was credited to Menzel and Rapp being in the cast. 

The production was named by “Entertainment Weekly” as one of the hits of the 2013-14 season and its cast album debuted at number 19 on the “Billboard” charts.  It became the largest selling cast album since BOOK OF MORMAN in 2011.

The story centers on newly divorced 38-year old Elizabeth, an urban planner who moves back to New York for a fresh start.  As the musical starts, she meets with her friends in Madison Square Park.  Lucas is a community organizer and Kate is a kindergarten teacher.  A guitarist, who plays a key role in the plot, is playing and singing.  Kate suggests that the “new” Elizabeth start over by using the name “Liz.”  Lucas urges her to go back to being called “Beth,” which she used in college.  This is the first of the choices that Elizabeth has to make regarding the two paths she might choose to follow. 

As we watch, the parallel lives of Liz and Beth develop.  (Spoiler alert:  Normally reviewers don’t go into detail about plots.  However, because of comments overheard at intermission and after the play, I think that a plot line exposition will help in watching the production.  If you don’t want to know what happens, skip the next three paragraphs.)

Liz, while listening to the guitarist in the park, is approached by Josh, an Army doctor returning from his second tour of duty.  She rebuffs him, but “accidentally” they meet several times again, and love is in the air.  The question of where choice and chance collide becomes a major factor in the plot development.  A professorship, relationship, pregnancy, marriage, redeployment, death, and more life decisions follow.

Beth, on the other hand, meets up with Stephen, an old friend and colleague, who offers her a job.  Beth and Stephen work together, become close friends, but part because he is married.  Beth calls Lucas, and they spend the night together.  Beth gets pregnant, doesn’t tell Lucas, and has an abortion.  She dedicates herself to work and wins planning awards and becomes a noted activist.  After a near death experience while on a business trip, she rekindles her relationship with Lucas.  Stephen gets divorced and comes to her to express regrets that he didn’t pursue a relationship and offers her a job in state government. Beth refuses and decides that she must go on without him.

As the play comes to a close, Beth, Lucas and Kate are having coffee in the park, Josh returns home from his third tour of duty, he approaches her and she lets him buy her some coffee.

Michael Greif’s direction keeps the show moving along, but can’t overcome the excessive length.

The large orchestra nicely underscores the strong voices of the singers, allowing the lyrics to be heard.

The traveling production is staged in an excellent fragmented set designed by Mark Wendland.  Electronic graphics of speeding subway cars and street scenes add visual realism to the action.  Larry Keigwin’s choreography fits the music and moods of the score.  The costumes and lighting also help enhance the production.  As for the sound, I overheard complaints about the lack of clarity of the sound expressed by people in the side and back sections.

The cast is universally strong.  Though she doesn’t have the magnetism of Idina Menzel, Jackie Burns, who played Elphaba in WICKED on tour and on Broadway, is excellent as Elizabeth/Beth/Liz.  She has a powerful singing voice, does a nice job of singing meanings, not just words, and creates a real person.  Her “Always Starting Over” is compelling.

Anthony Rapp, who also portrayed the role of Lucas on Broadway, sings and performs with conviction.  His “You Don’t Have to Love Me” was gripping.

 Leading man-handsome Matthew Hydzik is charmingly boyish as Josh.  His “Hey Kid” creates wonderful images.  “I Hate You,” a duet with Liz, is endearing.

Tamyra Gray (Kate), Daren A. Herbert (Stephen), Janine DiVita (Anne) and Marc Delacruz (David) are all convincing in their characterizations.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: IF/THEN has a wonderful score. The touring production has a strong cast and is nicely staged.  Too bad somewhere in the show’s development the sometimes confusing plot and excessive length weren’t dealt with.

Tickets for IF/THEN, which runs through February 21, 2016 at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Next up in the Key Bank series is BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROL KING MUSICAL on stage from April 5-17, 2016.