IF / THEN
I didn’t know much about IF/THEN, even after the Idina Menzel post-“Let It Go” media blitz at its incarnation. I had tickets to the show, and I purposely didn’t do any research on the show, avoided over-exposure to photos, clips, news, etc. so that my first impression of the story offered a relatively fresh perspective. With big-time names (and expectations, I would argue) comes big-time opinions. I suppose I didn’t want someone else’s opinion to be my own before I even saw it.
Allow me to try to explain the story. And I do mean, “try.” Frankly, I’m not positive I can after just one viewing.
We meet Elizabeth, a 39 year old transfer to New York from Arizona who has just divorced her husband and is hoping to surround herself in a new life in the bustling city. She’s driven, determined and pissed that she’s wasted the last 15 or so years of her life. A pissed off character is one Menzel plays best, I guess….because from the first snarky comment, which was indeed funny, the entire theatre exploded in laughter, wrapping Menzel in a welcoming embrace. Have you ever heard a fashion designer say that the model “isn’t wearing the dress” but rather the “dress is wearing the model?” Well, it’s something like that. The story doesn’t feature Idina Menzel….it’s “Idina Menzel” who happens to be doing a show for us tonight. (Make sense?)
Anyway…back to the story. She meets up an old college friend Lucas a bi-sexual one-man army of a zoning and housing activist and outspoken terrier of a man. (Played by Anthony Rapp originally..but he went in for emergency knee surgery the night before. I’m sure there is a “break a leg” joke here somewhere….but I’ll spare you. So we got the understudy Curtis Holbrook who was very good in the role.) Elizabeth befriends Kate, an outspoken, lesbian, kindergarten teacher who lives across the hall (played by Tony winner LaChanze who is the most likable character in the whole show. Perhaps it’s because she the only one I could ever realistically seeing myself having a conversation with, should this truly be a real world.)
Once we establish the basis for these relationships in the exposition, we are introduced to the first in a multitude of “shifts” from one reality to another. Elizabeth is asked to go to a protest with Lucas (who calls her “Beth” because it’s a more sensible name), but she kinda wants to go to an impromptu street concert with her new, crazy buddy (who calls her “Liz” because every sexy, driven New Yorker would be a “Liz” not a “Beth.) Add the addition of a pair of hipster glasses to the “Liz” character and you can see how this whole concept is going to work….flip-flopping the story back and forth, in and out of “Liz” and “Beth’s” worlds, like some grown-up, contemporary Choose Your Own Adventure novel, alternating between what IS and what COULD’VE BEEN. (Although we’re never privy to what reality is the true one. A bummer of a detail that I thought for sure would flesh out in the end…and, unless I missed it, never did.)
The two plots unfold (neither taking a back seat to the other, there is no secondary-plot…so it demands a LOT of the audience’s attention. It’s like watching two mini-series play out by the same actors at the same time.) Liz/Beth meets Josh by chance (or not by chance?) and the one story line finds her marrying, having children and accepting a reasonable but expected outcome to what one might deem a considerate life. The other story finds her thwarting the tug of her heart….choosing to invest in her career as a city planner (with the help of another old college friend who leverages her into a position of authority, whom she’s attracted to. But of course he’s married.) Twists, turns, complications and decisions that come home to roost all flesh out in front of us while Menzel snaps in and out of the opposing “Liz” and “Beth” storylines. I have to admit…I gave this whole musical my undivided attention, and I was a bit confused at parts. By the time my brain caught up (“oh, this is the ‘Beth’ storyline now”) it was halfway thought he scene and I was having to reorganize myself to regain the information that I had lost while in limbo.
You see, that’s the thing…the story is not a bad one. It’s a strong concept…with equally strong performers who communicate in clever ways. (The book is clever and crisp.) There are three problems with the show:
- PROBLEM #1: There is not a single song I can put in my pocket and take with me. (And strangely enough…the musical numbers are NOT listed in the playbill. Very odd.) The music is empowering and drives us from moment to moment flawlessly….there’s barely a seam or break to even take an extra breath in the whole show. (And on a funny side note…I was like “dang this sounds like ‘Next to Normal’” before knowing it with the composer and lyricist to “Next to Normal.”) But, unlike NEXT TO NORMAL, it doesn’t bind the story together, like some recognizable hard-cover book that we’ll be able to find on the shelf later. It’s presented and serves the story like long, laborious footnotes on the bottom of every page of this story.
- PROBLEM #2: The central character (our supposed “hero”) is carved out of sharp marble, with little finesse. Menzel is brilliant with a very distinct personality and voice, that’s why we love her. But, I felt that at every turn, and in every intention, I was hit on the head with the Idina Menzel rubber mallet and “gently” reminded…*BONK*….”you AGREE with this.” *BONK*….”you like this.”….*BONK*….”you are upset about this.” As an audience (an engaged part of the action, but traditionally as a voyeur) I don’t like being pigeon-holed, especially when the show impresses demands upon you. Perhaps they should have employed a device that would give the audience the choice to see what story line they want to see next? (Like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.) It’s a gimmick…for sure…but they applied all the demand on the audience without relinquishing any of the creative control. That’s not risk in my book. I felt held hostage at times.
- PROBLEM #3: I’m not sure this show would be as well-received if it lost one of two (or both!) things:
- If Idina Menzel left the show…would people still feel passionate about this Elizabeth character? I doubt it…the character seems to be written to portray the actress herself (down to her barefooted moments, which we all know is Menzel’s “thing.”)
- If it played anywhere else but New York, I don’t think the setting would be welcomed in the same way. I wouldn’t say it’s a love letter to New York, as it sure does call to attention ALL the problem with development in the city, but it beckons you to relate to New York “stuff” at EVERY TURN. (And I mean every turn, poking fun at subway woes, rival cities, sports teams, etc.) I wonder if plays in Las Vegas, for instance, if anyone would care about such things.
With that said…I cannot express how beautiful the show looks. The set design by Mark Wendland successfully creates other worlds in unique ways with a poise and gloss like an upper west side, art deco coffee table. Of this, most impressive is a giant, tipping mirror that reflects the shiny floor. (It sometimes giving us a fun bird’s eye view, sometimes reflecting lights in the floor creating “stars”…even a roadmap of New York, etched out in LEDs on the floor makes for a fun moment.) The turntable set, multi-functional boxes and chairs offer up many locations in New York. (I stopped counting how many scenes we visited after I reached a dozen.) The staging is gorgeous and fluid. The choreography is contemporary and at some points takes itself SO seriously, that it comes across as a bit pretentious, and not “from the heart” as I think they were going for.
The play touches on every relevant buzz topic of today. You may find that hilarious and personal (catching on thorns lodged firmly in your own personal paws) or you may find that really annoying. It depends on your view….but one thing I admired about the show is that the message and it’s champion makes a very loud noise and does so in a practically perfect way. There is no doubt that there is no one in the whole world like Idina Menzel. The one “major tragedy” the authors enlisted…we saw coming a mile away.
The story has tremendous arch and both realities tied things up very neatly in the end…and again, I would have loved to find out which reality was the TRUE reality. (Or maybe they didn’t want us to know?)
I wonder IF my opinion of this show would have been different, had I read up on the plot structures, reviews and anticipated the production value more? I didn’t take that path….so, I guess we’ll never know.