‘If/Then’ at The National Theatre by John Stoltenberg

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The fresh new musical If/Then—now in a tryout run at The National Theatre on its way to Broadway (where it is destined to be embraced by theatergoers who will want to see it again and again)—is more than a “feel good” show. It’s a full-on, full-hearted “feel alive” experience. It’s more than entertaining, tuneful, smart. It’s more than engrossing, intriguing, touching. It’s an inspiration to fall back in love with one’s own life.

Idina Menzel and James Snyder. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Idina Menzel and James Snyder. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Big Broadway musicals don’t generally generate such self-reflection—but If/Then sure does, and not just because Mark Wendland’s ingenious set features a huge mirror tilting overhead. If/Then, directed with deft honesty by Michael Greif, invites a rare kind of participatory audience response. It can make one feel—at a lilt in a song, or a line in a scene—that somehow the authors have been eavesdropping on one’s mind and monitoring one’s heart. If/Then‘s structure is unusual and takes a little getting used to, because it follows the same main character, Elizabeth, through two divergent story lines. The show is built upon the simple yet profound notion that life is full of random encounters and events, and we necessarily make our choices and take our chances without knowing where they will lead. But, the show reminds us, that’s no excuse for resignation to one’s “fate.” On the contrary, when we take bold swings at the curves life throws us, we become more who we were meant to be. Book writer Brian Yorkey’s lyrics sparkle with gems of emotional resonance, and the show’s richly expressive songs, composed by Tom Kitt, sustain the “what if?” theme with uncanny authenticity. Their genius is to capture the contingencies of life as it is lived right now.

Idina Menzel and the Company of 'If/Then.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

Idina Menzel and the Company of ‘If/Then.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Elizabeth is played powerfully and poignantly by Idina Menzel, who seems to sing effortlessly, with a voice that can sear and soar. From the opening big number, “If I Told You/If,” all the way through her show-stopping solo “Always Starting Over” near the end, Menzel’s star-quality performance lights up the stage with a luminosity magnitude of the first order. At the same time Menzel invites us into Elizabeth’s world with affectionate humility—never seeming other than someone real, someone we might know and care about in everyday life.

In their brilliant breakout musical, Next to Normal, Kitt and Yorkey gave us a portrait of a mentally unstable suburban wife and mother whose life is falling apart. In If/Then they give us a modern metropolitan professional woman who is trying to put the pieces of her life back together. Their compassion and audacity combine with their astronomic talent to become a breakthrough in musical theater history.

Elizabeth, educated in New York City as an urban planner, moved to Phoenix with her husband. But, as Elizabeth learned to her dismay, he expected her to be solely a wife. Now in her late thirties, she wants more, so she has left behind her loveless marriage and moved  back to New York City to start her life over. That’s when, at a figurative fork in the road, two versions of her life unfold—one as “Liz” and one as “Beth”—and the show cross-cuts between them, at times within the same musical numbers.

Liz becomes a schoolteacher; Beth reenters the field of urban planning. Liz gets married and has children; Beth remains single and pursues a high-level career. Adding complexity to this narrative device, the same supporting characters appear in both Liz’s and Beth’s story. Their stories interweave, and each gets at least one great true-to-their-character song, which they deliver with uniformly gorgeous voices. In “It’s a Sign” her friend Kate (LaChanze) urges her to take another chance on love. Her friend  Lucas (Anthony Rapp) celebrates the human interconnection in which hearts intersect with “Ain’t No Man Manhattan.” Josh (James Snyder), an Army surgeon whom Liz marries, courts her with kindness in “You Never Know”—even as Beth’s married boss Stephen (Jerry Dixon), catches her eye. Liz/Beth’s alternate romantic biographies are enhanced by the stories of Kate and her lover Anne (Jenn Colella), who share a tender reconciliation in “No More Wasted Time,” and Lucas and his lover David (Jason Tam), whose “The Best Worst Mistake” is both cheeky and touching.

All these multiple narratives with multiple implications render life’s ambiguities and uncertainties in a way that is far from being unnerving or unsettling. Instead they serve to reassure us we are not alone in wondering whether we’ve picked the best path. Nor are we alone in realizing—as does Liz/Beth in the haunting “You Learn to Live Without”—that no path is perfect.

Another dimension of If/Then that makes it such a revelation and a pleasure is the ease with which it reflects so many issues and social changes that have swept through contemporary life. From the economics of affordable housing to same-sex marriage and parenting to the Iraq war to women’s equality, the references in Yorkey’s startlingly truthful lyrics remind us of not only who we are but what times we live in. The cumulative effect is like a bright warm glow that helps us see more clearly, feel more deeply, and want to live more bravely.

LaChanze and Anthony Rapp. Photo by Joan Marcus.

LaChanze and Anthony Rapp. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There’s a lovely scene in the first act that for anyone who has ever been a New Yorker is like a fond letter from a dear friend. It’s called “A Map of New York,” and in Kenneth Posner’s delightful lighting design, a map of the subway system lights up on the stage floor and is reflected above in the mirror. When this show moves on to Broadway, it will have gone back to that dear friend, back home where it belongs. And I expect it to stay there a long, long while.

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If/Then plays through December 8, 2013 at The National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 514-3849 (ETIX), or by visiting the Box Office, or by purchasing them online.

LINKS

Interviews with the cast of If/Then by Joel Markowitz:
Introducing the Cast of If/Then at The National TheatrePart 1: Jason Tam .
Introducing the Cast of If/Then at The National TheatrePart 2: Jenn Colella. 
Introducing the Cast of If/Then at The National TheatrePart 3: James Snyder. 
Introducing the Cast of If/Then at The National TheatrePart 4: Jerry Dixon.

New Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s ‘If/Then with Idina Menzel to Stop at National Theatre on DCMetroTheaterArts.

‘If/Then’ Video Released-Begins at National Theatre on November 5th on DCMetroTheaterArts.

DCMetroTheaterArts coverage of If/Then.

Read other reviews of If/Then in ‘Other Reviews.’



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3 Responses to ‘If/Then’ at The National Theatre by John Stoltenberg

  1. Alan B November 25, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Interesting that you fail to comment on the confusion staging for the dual narratives, the lame choreography throughout the production, the very long first act which grows tedious, or the amalgamation of so many devices the creative team have used in their other shows. I think the show has potential but it needs much more work before Broadway audiences are going to embrace it as you suggest.

  2. John Stoltenberg
    John Stoltenberg November 26, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    Hello, Alan B. Thanks so much for your comment here. I’d like to respond briefly to your points (I hope to write a follow-up column in which I can say more): I was aware going in that there would be two divergent story lines for the same main character (and I’d recommend that everyone seeing the show be alerted to that as well, because it’s something no one would know to expect). Honestly, though, when I saw the show, I quickly relaxed about being certain whether I was in Liz’s world or Beth’s. It does help when another character addresses her by her nom du plotline within the first line or two of a scene or beat, but in moments when I wasn’t positive…I really wasn’t bothered. As for the choreography, here’s what I really liked about it: The movements seem deliberately natural, not artificially or superficially dancerly; the chorus felt like part of the whole cast of individuated characters, not generic adjuncts; there was a wonderful range of shapes and sizes and colors and sexual orientations, which to me evoked what it’s like to walk around in NYC. The choreography felt like an extension of the whole show’s honesty and authenticity, in other words. As for the length of Act One, gosh, this whole show for me was one that seemed to go by so fast I was kind of shocked when I looked at my watch at the end. (I had not known the runtime beforehand.) I may have been swept up in the pleasures of learning more and more about how the same supporting characters (each utterly fascinating in his or her own right) were figuring into Liz/Beth’s two plotlines, I’m not sure. Time perception is subjective, of course–as is falling in love. And If/Then had me at the opening number.

  3. Aly B. November 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    I really appreciate this skillfully yet heartfelt review, probably because I share your enthusiasm for the show. I have seen the criticisms of the narrative device and agree that it could be tightened up and made clearer in some respects, but like you, even when I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, so to speak, it didn’t seem to matter. I think those who were not “hooked” like you and I from the first note were much more distracted by these “flaws” because they were not similarly engaged/entranced –and of course that is to be expected, not everything speaks to everyone. So while I am interested to see the show in it’s B’way incarnation, where it will likely be altered, I don’t think these changes will make a more significant impact on me than it did when I saw it on Nov.16th. For all the reasons you so eloquently described in your review, If/Then will stand as one of the most profound experiences I have had in my fortunately very rich theater-going life–warts or no warts–and all. ;-)