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Broadway-bound musical 'If/Then' features Idina Menzel and problematic plot

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

9:00 AM EST, November 26, 2013

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If you like musicals packed with songs delivered by a vibrant cast boasting a certified star at the helm, all surrounded by cool stagecraft, then hasten to the National Theatre for the pre-Broadway tryout of “If/Then.”

If you’re more interested in truly distinctive music and a totally straightforward plot, then you may well  be disappointed in this new venture by the creators of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal” that showcases the sterling talents of Idina Menzel.

Either way, if you take a chance, then you will know how your life and the lives of those around you could be changed forever just by deciding to see this musical, rather than letting the moment pass you by and causing you to take very different, maybe even dispiriting paths before the show reaches New York — which is to say, you will have grasped the main, somewhat belabored point of “If/Then.”

Yes, this is a work about the good old vagaries of fate and human nature. The scenario (Brian Yorkey wrote the book and the half-clever, half-cliched lyrics) concerns Elizabeth, a pushing-40 woman with a PhD in urban planning and a tendency to over-analyze. She returns to New York from Phoenix after a failed marriage, eager to restart her professional and personal life.

Elizabeth faces a couple of career paths back in her beloved metropolis. We know what each outcome will bring because we get to see both, almost simultaneously.

As “Liz,” Elizabeth makes one set of decisions; as “Beth,” she makes another. One takes her along a pretty safe routine and into romance; the other involves high-profile decision-making and not so much personal happiness.

This dual role has been crafted for Menzel, who is slated to be on the marquee when the show hits Broadway in March, making her first return to the Great White Way since winning a Tony for “Wicked” a decade ago. Not surprisingly, her opening words in “If/Then” — “Hello, it’s me” — have “applause line” written all over them.

The constant shift between the Liz/Beth story lines can get awfully confusing, especially since everyone else in the story goes through changes, too.

I suppose it would look comical if Menzel donned, say, eyeglasses to separate Liz from Beth, but something in the way of differentiation would be worth considering. There are just too many moments when the interconnecting threads of character and plot get tangled and twisted, diluting the big points underneath them.

That said, it is often easy enough to just go with the multiple flows and let coherence be darned, especially since Menzel is such a dynamic singing actress.

She delivers her songs, including one with an unprintable title, as if they were the equivalent of Stephen Sondheim’s finest. (They aren’t, but composer Tim Kitt occasionally slips a bit of heavy-handed Sondheim imitation alongside all the generic rock/pop tunes in the score.)

With sensitive nuances when the story line is dark and expert comic timing when it isn’t, Menzel makes Liz/Beth a disarmingly natural presence. No wonder guys — straight, gay, married, single — would fall for her.

And fall they do. There’s the friend from college days, super-serious social activist Lucas (deftly portrayed by Anthony Rapp); the well-connected Stephen (a smooth Jerry Dixon), who offers her big opportunities and temptations; and, especially, Josh (the engaging James Snyder), an army reservist doctor who makes the most of a chance encounter.

Also lighting up the stage in the uniformly polished cast is LaChanze as Kate, Elizabeth’s lesbian friend with a keen, funny ability to cut to the chase.

Humor is one of the script’s strong points. Even when it’s hard to figure out who’s who and what’s what, there’s the relief of good zingers about relationships, politics and more.

And the show is certainly very 2013, with an easy-going treatment of same-sex marriage (Lucas and Kate gain spouses at some point) and even a timely little dig at Toronto’s mayor.

This is also a very New York show. A major plot item has to do with a massive West Side development and the effect it could have on everyday lives; there are allusions to the debate over the future of New York’s Penn Station; the New York subway system provides a recurring visual motif in Mark Wendland’s terrific multitiered set design.

Director Michael Greif keeps everything flowing with enough energy and imagination that you can almost forget that the piece, especially Act 1, is too long; or that some events (notably a plane crash) seem to come out of -- and go -- nowhere, while other things (especially a military funeral) get drawn out.

The ensemble in the pit, led by Carmel Dean, delivers Michael Starobin’s vivid orchestrations so stylishly that the even the weakest songs get a boost. And Larry Keigwin’s fluid choreography is a plus throughout.    

In some ways, this new musical suggests a female-centric version of “Company,” the Sondheim classic about a guy trying to sort out his life with the help of loyal friends loaded with advice. The essence of "If/Then" -- so many options, so many fears -- has plenty of musical and dramatic potential, and a lot of it is realized.  But a lot remains to be finessed and re-thought.

If the show could gain tighter focus and clarity, could spend more time on things that enrich the story and less on incidents that don’t, then it might deliver a much more compelling statement about the way we live and love — and have to take a gamble on both.

"If/Then" runs through Dec. 8 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington.