Tuesday, February 04, 2020

IF/THEN, in spite of a wonderful score, is frustrating

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, which laid the foundation for a major change in the American musical theatre—the development of musical dramas.  IF/THEN is now on stage at Lakeland Civic Theatre.

I was in the fourth-row center on opening night in National Theatre, Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2013 when IF/THEN opened its preview run before going to Broadway.  

My reaction to the show was that Idina Menzel, the star of RENT and WICKED, who was playing the leading role, was mesmerizing.  I found the music meaningful, 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—almost four hours.  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. The second act, except for the ending, is clearer than the first, which lays out the extended exposition.

The show opened on Broadway to mixed reviews on March 5, 2014.  In spite of the critiques, the production ran 401 performances, almost a year.  The box office surge was credited to Menzel and Rapp being in the cast, not to the vehicle.  

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 begins, she meets with her friends, Lucas, a community organizer, and Kate, a kindergarten teacher, in Madison Square Park. 

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.  

Liz 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. (Fade to black…)

Lakeland’s production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is well done, but despite the focused staging, the convoluted story just can’t be overcome. 

The cast is universally strong.  Sandra Emerick as Elizabeth/Beth/Liz displays a powerful singing voice, does a nice job of singing meanings, and creates a real person.  Her “Always Starting Over” is compelling.

Michael Knobloch, though a little young for the role of Lucas, sings and performs with conviction.  His “You Don’t Have to Love Me” was well-done.

Michael Snider is macho/charming as Josh.  His “Hey Kid” creates wonderful images.  “I Hate You,” a duet with Liz, is endearing.

Braelin Andrzejewski (Kate) and Jacqueline DiFrangia (Elana) and Nick Hribar (David) are basically convincing in their characterizations.

The creative fragmented set by Trad A Burns, duplicates the plot by using reflective segments of panels, a dual-imaged NY skyline, and multiple doorways for entrances and exits.

Musical Director Matthew Dolan does a nice job with the choral blending, working with the leads to create meaning to the words of the songs, and keeping the orchestra under control so they don’t drown out the vocalists.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: IF/THEN has a wonderful score.  Too bad somewhere in the show’s development, the confusing plot and excessive length weren’t dealt with. 

Tickets for IF/THEN, which runs through February 16, 2020 at Lakeland Community College, can be ordered by calling 440-525-7134 or going on line to http://lakelandcc.edu/academic/arts/theatre/index.asp