NEW YORK — “I don't want to be a new kind of married,” howls one of the self-doubting characters in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's occasionally precious but thoroughly fascinating and intellectually and musically rich new Broadway musical. With Idina Menzel at its center, “If/Then” is a zesty, restless, savvy, ambitious, twin-plotted original that's not an adaptation of anything but a very compelling and involving idea about a youngish divorcee in the self-actualizing, progressive playground that is today's Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Elizabeth has just arrived in New York — which, in Broadway-speak, means her life can finally begin. She is pushing 40, clock ticking but job offers are rolling in, and she finds herself surrounded by angst-ridden others, all dealing with the anguish of so many choices for the highly educated, deftly networked and amply resourced.
Elizabeth's twin journeys — one as Liz, one as Beth, to help us keep track — unspool at once, scenes alternating cleverly before they finally connect, like the closed end of a once-forked road. The biggest fans of this show will be those who constantly second-guess their decisions in love, work and life. That would be those of us who constantly wonder what might have happened had we nixed that date as we almost did, taken that other job, skipped that phone call, not married her, not gone to the park that day and seen that cute guy, or whatever other life-changing dilemma arrived without fully declaring its gravitas.
Well, those of us inclined to regret are a big group. That bodes well for “If/Then,” which is likely to hit an especially sweet spot among urban women from about 25-45.
Equally ample is the fan club of the resurgent, complicated Menzel, who you might know as “Adele Dazeem” in her other life, and whose cool-to-the-touch character is so much at the core of the show that no one else can even get within several layers of it. Menzel, oft allowed to stand and belt on a near-empty stage (and who does not therein disappoint), is no sentimentalist. And aside, of course, from the force of her vocals — which make Kitt and Yorkey's pop-Broadway score, with its savvy lyrics, so exciting — that discernible lack of comfort with emotional revelation forges a woman who really does not know herself. And that is exactly what this show, which might easily have slipped into the bathetic, needs.
Granted, “If/Then” deals with what they call first world problems, given that most of the planet still makes its decisions out of necessity. And in the end, the show — which well knows on which side its commercial bread will be buttered and now is much easier to follow than early reports suggested — tells us that all tracks can lead to the same wiser-and-mostly-happy place, when in fact real life, dear reader, suggests a darker truth in which some consequential choices haunt you for life. But that's not what you pay the big Broadway bucks to hear.
“If/Then” is, for sure, overstuffed with huge crises in both storylines, and since we're double-timing here, they cascade at times in Yorkey's book with dizzying, credibility-sapping rapidity. The expositional needs are intense, but once it's clear that we're tracking Elizabeth's happiness, or lack thereof, and once Kitt and Yorkey provide her with a blistering number about bad choices that she can sing in her bathroom, the audience is in Menzel's and the show's pocket. And there they remain as Liz/Beth chooses between the soldier-doctor (played, with apt solidity, by James Snyder) who wooed her in the park, or an alternate life caught between a married guy who offers her jobs but wants more (Jerry Dixon) and an old college pal turned radical (Anthony Rapp) who may or may not be gay. Or bisexual. The travails of a mostly cheery lesbian couple, played amusingly by La Chanze and Jenn Colella, provide B-plot color, comic relief, move the plot along and offer a few cautionary tales of the broader community.
Rapp and Menzel appeared together in “Rent,” of course, directed, like this show, by the ever shrewd Michael Greif. Although Rapp is playing a different character, you get the sense that Greif is on some level playing with that particular bit of urban and Broadway history, suggesting that this newest Rapp character is not unlike one of those old “Rent” bohemians, still trapped in East Village social action and thus misunderstanding how New York has changed. His peers, typified by the Menzel character, have traded protests and grunge for parks and a kinder, gentler gentrification.
Rapp offers a moving, halting performance in a very resonant character. One point of the show, of course, is to ask what makes you happier, la vie boheme or a policymaking position with the city?
“If/Then” features a cleverly conflicted setting from Mark Wendland, a design that I think he and Greif wanted to be half “Rent” and half The High Line. So achieved. This urban ambivalence works very well for a show fascinated by the passage of time and how we all must adapt to the changing face of a great city, but also by the way we're never sure if our life turns on random choices. Do we just marry those we happen to meet and get ahead based on random breaks, or do we float on a cloud of consciousness and magical-realism destiny?
The great strength of Menzel's performance in this major new musical of generational shift is that she makes you feel like she doesn't fully buy into either explanation. She's still sad. She still sings.
"If/Then" plays on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St.,ifthenthemusical.com.