BWW Reviews: Divided Musical IF/THEN Explores Not Having It All
Despite the efforts of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Sarah Jessica Parker, American women can still find themselves feeling they have to choose between a satisfying love life and a challenging career. In Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey's (book and lyrics) ambitious new musical If/Then, our heroine is literally divided between the two all night.
Fresh from divorce and escaped from Phoenix, urban planner Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) is back in New York and ready to start anew. A Madison Square Park reunion with her old college bud, the serious-minded community activist Lucas (Anthony Rapp), also includes her new neighbor, party girl kindergarten teacher Kate (LaChanze).
While Lucas calls Elizabeth by her old nickname, Beth, Kate thinks she's more of a Liz ("Beth lives alone with cats. Liz moves to New York City to find her one true love."). When faced with the choice between joining Lucas at a street action or venturing with Kate to Brooklyn to see a cute musician's gig ("That's right-they do things in Brooklyn now."), the bespectacled Liz goes one way and the clear-sighted (or contact-wearing) Beth goes the other.
Liz accepts the polite advances of Josh (James Snyder), a surgeon whose education came courtesy of stints in the army reserves, and eventually gives up professional ambitions to marry him. Beth brushes Josh aside and sees her career skyrocket, though she habitually makes romantic choices that she most likely knows will never turn out right.
For the most part, Yorkey does an admirable job of exploring the minor and major differences in Elizabeth's life, triggered by whether or not she accepts a date with Josh. His book is most clever when single events are dramatized in duo variations. But by the end he seems to have favored one story, giving it a more realistic weight.
The generically pleasing pop score rarely delves into the complexities of Elizabeth beyond sentiments that can easily be removed from their context. Menzel is given a multitude of moments to belt her face off, and she truly makes an art of it, but her appealing performance - save for one surprising comic song - serves a text that's more about the story's structure than its central character.
The main supporting characters are granted juicier moments. Rapp is terrific as the acerbically-humored intellectual with self-esteem issues, LaChanze gets plenty of laughs with Kate's showy, jaunty confidence and Snyder's heartfelt sincerity is just lovely.
Director Michael Greif and choreographer Larry Keigwin offer a depiction of New York that's always on the go, as players glide through Mark Wendland's kinetic set; the most notable feature of which is the full length mirror that places aerial views of the action on the top half of the stage. Perhaps it's intentional that many of the ensemble dances look more interesting from above.
An excellent cast and a slick, professional staging at least insure that If/Then entertains. But the sophomore Broadway effort of the pair that won a Pulitzer and a Best Score Tony for Next To Normal, though certainly admirable, doesn't achieve its interesting potential.