As a self-professed musical theatre geek, there are few things that give me greater joy than being able to witness the seeds of a new, completely original musical begin to grow. Local theatregoers have such a chance right now as Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s anticipated musical If/Then premieres at Washington, DC’s historic, yet until recently under-used, National Theatre.
The intent of this pre-Broadway production is to ready it for New York, where it’s slated to premiere in March, 2014. As it currently exists, there is considerable work to be done on the piece, but many threads which show great promise. Kitt and Yorkey demonstrated the tenacity required to ‘perfect’ original musicals with the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony-nominated Next to Normal – even working on the show at DC’s own Arena Stage following its full production debut at New York’s Second Stage. They have a similar, but perhaps more daunting challenge ahead of them in continuing to refine this piece. However, I’m quite confident they and the rest of the production team, helmed by accomplished director Michael Greif, can likely work out some of the kinks.
These challenges largely relate to the show structure, presence of superfluous plot points in Brian Yorkey’s book, a situation of too many ballads that ‘say’ the same thing lyrically, and a tendency for making the show larger than it probably needs to be. However, what the ambitious musical does have going for it is a creative edge, Kitt’s mostly strong and catchy music, and a really stellar cast.
As the title might suggest, If/Then is largely concerned with the question of ‘what if?’ How do we know what path to take in life? What do we leave up to chance and what do we plan? What happens if one small decision – for example, going to a park – alters our course? Another prominent theme is the challenge of balancing everything we have in our contemporary, busy lives – family, work, romantic relationships – particularly in fluid, high paced and high stress urban environments.
These questions are largely explored as we get to know Elizabeth (Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel, set to make her return to Broadway after ten years). In one life, she’s “Beth” – a single, driven, career-obsessed women who takes a leap and reaches the top of her game, career-wise, as a government city planner. In another life, she’s “Liz” – a slightly neurotic control freak who is not always willing to take a leap. She takes an academic job following a move from Phoenix to New York rather than a high pressured one where she actually ‘does’ city planning.
The differences between the two iterations of her character aren’t limited to career choices. A complicated love life enters into the picture as well. Various love or romantic interests (Jerry Dixon, Anthony Rapp, James Snyder) – some old, some new, some stodgy, some inspired to be political activists or medical professionals, and some that work in her career circle – come up as options for her to pursue. A decision to enter into relations with any and all of them has profound implications for her work-life balance and personal sanity. Does it involve children? Does it involve a two-parent household? Does it involve marrying a man who goes off to war? Does it involve long-term commitment?
It all depends.
If there’s anything that remains constant in the story, it’s the relationship Elizabeth has with her friends – supportive kindergarten teacher Kate (Tony Award-winner LaChanze), her love interest/partner Anne (Jenn Colella), and Lucas (Anthony Rapp). These friends also deal with their own personal struggles to ‘have it all. ’ These struggles shift depending on whether Liz or Beth’s story is being told, but the characters fundamentally remain the same in terms of their own personas and their relationships with Liz/Beth.
Does this all sound complicated? Yes, it is. In fact, it kind of reminds me a bit of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in that it requires some suspension of disbelief and a huge commitment from the audience.
However, one has to give credit to the creative team for trying to make the story as clear as possible, while retaining the unique two-fold storyline. Subtle lighting (Kenneth Posner) changes are used to shift from Liz’s and Beth’s life in mere instances – sometimes even within scenes. However, it may be beneficial to also have additional subtle costume (Emily Rebholz) changes to make the transitions clear without being too overkill, particularly in the more convoluted first act.
The question, of course, is whether it’s all worth it to make the story much, much more streamlined? Certainly, it would lead to more clarity and perhaps connection to the story, but there’s also the conundrum of staying true to the plot development device that’s so central to a story called If/Then.
Without the interesting shifts in circumstance, we’d largely have a story that’s relatable to the ‘everyday’ professional 20 and 30-somethings trying to make a go at life no matter the cost, particularly in Manhattan or other urban areas. However, it wouldn’t be the epitome of innovative or even original. Some superfluous and melodramatic plot points (let’s just say there’s a plane heading for a crash at one point and leave it at that) make the show at times to be a conglomeration of various Lifetime movies and previous Broadway shows (Rent comes to mind – a show intimately familiar to Menzel and Rapp).
Likewise, while I appreciate that the story tries to tell the story of others in Elizabeth’s life that are facing relationship and to a lesser extent career struggle, it does pull focus to get to know them. At some points, all the drama is akin to Yorkey hitting us over the head with the idea that ‘life is hard and relationships are harder – one decision can change one’s course.’ While a universal message, it’s not a particularly new one. Additionally, with the entry of so many characters that are all dealing with a range of problems, it’s hard to really end up carrying where anyone ends up in the end because like life, there’s so much going on.
If we don’t care where the characters end up from Yorkey’s dialogue alone – though Menzel does a yeoman’s job to make us want to care – it’s somewhat easier to find ways to be concerned with their plight as they explore their wants, struggles, and fear through song. As sung by the brilliant cast – particularly vocal powerhouses Menzel and LaChanze – they let Kitt’s pop-rock based music help them convey emotion as the grapple with life in an earnest and authentic way.
Some of the ballads in the latter half of the show begin to sound the same. This is in part due to Michael Starobin’s orchestrations, which, though well played by Carmel Dean’s 13-piece orchestra, are underwhelming. However, there’s no doubt that Kitt has the groovy beat down pat. Among the strongest musically is “The Story of Jane” – even if the song is rather unnecessary in developing the plot, LaChanze sings the catchy song really, really well – and “Surprise.” Then there’s my personal favorite, the 11’oclock number “Always Starting Over,” which I have no doubt will find its way on the song list that Broadway belters consider for auditions. It’s the classic ‘I Want Song’ and allows Menzel to show off her enormous vocal range with power, conviction and intent. Yorkey’s lyrics on this song also capture the fundamental message of the show.
Lyrically, other songs are fun (“What the Fuck?”) and others still have a profound message about human connection (“A Map of New York”) and the daily grind of urban life (“Ain’t No Man Manhattan”). Masterful, polished musical theatre actors Menzel, Rapp, Snyder, Colella, LaChanze and others sell these and other songs with conviction and intention even the lyrics aren’t always the most interesting and unique. Brian Ronan’s clear and crisp sound design makes it incredibly easy to hear and understand every word they sing even in the amped up, pop-rock, beltfest numbers.
Other issues, however, relate to the production elements and size.
Closes December 8, 2013
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $53 – $128
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Yet, I did have to wonder if having a large cast employed here was completely necessary. As it currently exists, it is a 6, maybe 7 cast show that’s masking as something much larger. A hardworking ensemble portrays the people of NY (coworkers in NY, people in the park etc.) yet the story could likely be told without many of them. Their strong, bright voices fill out the ensemble music numbers nicely and they perform Larry Keigwin’s choreography – however, superfluous it is – with precision and energy. Yet, I don’t think we’d miss much in terms of capturing Elizabeth’s story if the ensemble was downsized.
But when it’s all said and done? Kitt, Yorkey and co may be on to something here. It may not be the next greatest musical right now, nor may it be ready for New York tomorrow. However, that’s not the point. The foundation is set and it’s a largely useful one.
If/Then . Music by Tom Kitt . Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey . Directed by Michael Greif . Featuring Idina Menzel, James Snyder, Anthony Rapp, LaChanze, Jerry Dixon, Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence, Joe Cassidy, Miguel Cervantes, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Klemons, Tyler McGee, Ryann Redmond, Joe Aaron Reid and Ann Sanders . Choreography: Larry Keigwin . Set Design: Mark Wendland . Costume design: Emily Rebholz . Lighting design: Kenneth Posner . Sound design: Brian Ronan . Music direction: Carmel Dean . Orchestrations: Michael Starobin . Produced by David Stone . Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.
Chuck Conconi . Washington Life
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Alexis Victoria Hauk . DCist
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Esther Covington . WeLoveDC
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts