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Review: ‘If/Then’ at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia

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Broadway today is the era of musical/cartoon/film/remakes. We should, therefore, be grateful for anything that attempts a reasonably adult theme: in this case, how our decisions will create our future. If only the musical was better.

Jackie Burns. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jackie Burns. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“Best Worst Mistake”, “Some Other Me”, “You Never Know”, and “What Would You Do?” are some of the songs written by Tom Kitt, (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) who created the award winning Next to Normal.

The musical asks the question “What if I had done ______ instead?”  Everyone in the audience has made difficult decisions, so this theme is naturally resonant. But the above titles demonstrate that the arguments are continually restated with the disappointing finesse of a sledgehammer.

Elizabeth, (Jackie Burns) returns to New York after 12 years in Phoenix.  Newly divorced, she must now transform her life. Should she pursue the career of urban planner that she trained for? Or should she find a nice guy and settle into the life of a West Side mom? Actually, she gets to do both. In one series of scenes, she becomes the positive Beth, smartly attired in business suits and projecting a cocky confidence. In a parallel universe, she become Liz who wears glasses, feeds the kids, and dresses comfortably, (Excellent costumes by Emily Rebholz).

This is accompanied by a visual hymn to New York City. Set Designer Mark Wendland, ably abetted by the complex lighting of Kenneth Posner, create a marvelous city with striking projections, a turntable, and many easily relocated set pieces for the numerous locales. The ensemble members glide through the parks and streets playing various roles such as the waiters, doctors, and musicians who make up Manhattan. If Disney/Epcot ever needs a New York Pavilion, the designs are done.

The heroine’s friends are a diverse group that seems to have been pulled from a “New York Manual of Political Correctness”. There is the black/white lesbian couple, countered by the Asian/white gay couple. There’s Beth’s black married boss, (Jacques C. Smith), who continually promotes her to more powerful employment while continually flirting. Both Beth and Liz have attractive/black/best friends. Matthew Hydzik as Josh, Liz’ veteran/husband sweetly sings “Hey Kid” as he contemplates his upcoming fatherhood. But Josh is no Billy Bigalow. One reason the Rodgers/Hammerstein musicals are continually revived is that they present very specific characters that we care about, wedded to music that perfectly expresses their desires and needs. Each of If/Then’s stereotypical New Yorkers is given a song that fails to land, because we don’t really know them. There is no character to Tom Kitt’s score, when all the characters sound the same.

Anthony Rapp and the Ensemble. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Anthony Rapp and the Ensemble. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jackie Burns is excellent in the role expressly tailored to Idina Menzel. Burns has the requisite angular face, seductiveness, and a belting voice that could shatter concrete. It is a credit to her acting that we always know who and where she is at any moment. She is imposing in the her final/predictable number “Always Starting Over.”

Anthony Rapp, seems to recreate his character in Rent, (he lives as a squatter in an abandoned building), as Liz/Beth’s best friend with benefits. His major moment is the non/love song “You Don’t Need to Love Me.”

Michael Greif, (of Rent and Next to Normal) has given the excellent cast and designs Broadway sheen. What doesn’t shine is the sound. This is the National Tour Company, which plays weekly engagements in various cities, so Brian Ronan’s sound design is nothing like what he created for Broadway. In this case, the large speakers that surround the stage send generic blastings into that huge opera house, christened The Academy of Music, and, naturally, much of the dialogue/lyrics, are lost in space. The touring If/Then probably sounds better in more traditional theaters, but Philadelphians accustomed to the music emanating from the Academy stage will instantly notice the difference.

If you are a twenty something girl who as a tween adored Menzel in Wicked, you will probably adore If/Then. The rest of us will wonder what might have been.

Running Time: Two hours and 30-minutes, with an intermission.

If/Then plays through Sunday June 26, 2016 at The Academy of Music – 240 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 790-5883, or purchase them online.

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