There’s much to love in touring ‘If/Then’ at Playhouse Square, but not enough
By Bob Abelman
The 2014 Broadway musical “If/Then,” now on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square, revolves around newly divorced 38-year-old Elizabeth, an urban planner living in Phoenix who moves to New York City for a fresh start.
The play opens with Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) meeting up with new friends Kate (Tamyra Gray) and her girlfriend Anne (Janine DiVita), who insist she go by the freewheeling “Liz” as a sign of her new attitude and openness to new experiences.
She also runs into old boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a social activist, who recalls her drive and passion and suggests she reclaim her college nickname, “Beth,” and start making professional connections in the city.
When she meets the thoroughly likable Josh (Matthew Hydzik), Elizabeth has an important life-altering decision to make: carouse as Liz or build a career as Beth. Not an easy choice for a woman who has a tendency to make all the wrong choices and then second-guess herself by wondering “what if?”
Rather than address Elizabeth’s midlife crisis, this musical avoids it by exploring the parallel paths of both Liz and Beth to see how each plays out. Think “It’s a Wonderful Life” with dance breaks.
It matters little that no explanation is given for why or how Elizabeth’s trajectory divides, for this musical is an exposition-heavy, song-saturated fable by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey’s (book and lyrics) as envisioned by director Michael Greif.
The New York City in this “If/Then” is a highly sanitized, color-saturated, ultra-contemporary version of the real thing, comprised of minimalistic, handsomely crafted set pieces by Mark Wendland and a backdrop of beautifully conceived digital animation designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully. The production values are astounding.
This world is populated by young, affable and good-looking characters with nary a care save for personal growth and professional development. Even people wandering city streets and riding subways fit this description, moving in perfect unison to the rapid-fire rhythms of Larry Keigwin’s modern dance choreography, which is at once beautiful and bizarre.
As Liz, Elizabeth marries Josh and becomes a caring, devoted mother and teacher.
As Beth, she becomes a calculating, high-powered city planner under the tutelage of married but interested mover-and-shaker Stephen (Daren A. Herbert).
We glimpse each of these lives by way of alternating scenes and musical numbers performed by exceptional, Broadway-seasoned featured players and an equally talented eight-member ensemble. A superb orchestra comprised largely of local talent under Kyle C. Norris’ direction accompanies their efforts.
There is much to love in this musical. But you will surely find yourself second-guessing some of its production choices and, like Elizabeth, wondering “what if?” throughout.
The songs seem to have been written for a different musical. Dichotomous drama is nothing new to Kitt and Yorkey, who created the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning “Next to Normal.” That offered a dark and vivid portrait of a bipolar, manic-depressive and delusional woman whose disease infiltrates and infects her family. Each song was an expression of excruciating frustration and heartbreak.
The similarly sensitive and reflective compositions of “If/Then” come across as dreary and monotonous coming out of the mouths of these comparatively privileged, healthy and one-dimensional characters.
What if … the music better matched the show’s message and motif?
Another problem is Idina Menzel’s fingerprints all over this production. “If/Then” was showcased in Washington, D.C., in 2013, opened on Broadway in 2014, and went on tour in Denver in 2015 with the distinctive, Tony Award-winning Menzel playing Elizabeth. She left the tour in Dallas just weeks before the Cleveland engagement and Burns – who understudied for her on Broadway and on tour – took over.
Burns is a performer of incredible vocal strength, range and tone. She absolutely soars in the closer, “Always Starting Over.” But she doesn’t yet own it or any other trademark power ballad built for Menzel.
What if … these songs were performed on Burns’ terms?
A final and, perhaps, the biggest concern is that neither variation of Elizabeth’s life is that compelling. This leaves audiences less likely to wonder “what if” when both are explored for nearly three hours than repeat the title of a song early in the musical where neither Liz nor Beth can believe her own poor choices. The song is called “What the F—-?” CV
WHERE: Connor Palace, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Feb. 21
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$100, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 12, 2016.