BWW Review: Strong Performances Ensure Success of Circle Players' IF/THEN
What if? For many, their lives are filled with the search for answers to the questions that tend to keep people awake in the middle of the night, wondering if they'd made another choice how their lives would have been impacted and, more importantly, where they might find themselves instead of lying awake in a cloistered apartment, cut off from adventure and intrigue, living a life largely unexamined until 3 a.m.
That, for all intents and purposes, is what provides If/Then, the musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, with its raison d'etre and which provides the compelling basis for its libretto and score. In Kitt and Yorkey's work, audiences are invited to consider the life (or perhaps more to the point, the lives) of Elizabeth, a 38-year-old urban planner who has left behind a failed marriage in Phoenix to return to New York City, to see what she can make with the rest of her life.
It's an intriguing premise, to be certain, and while that provides the framework for the complicated and somewhat convoluted plot of the musical by the team behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal, it can also be confounding and confusing (I promise pump the brakes on this alliterative train right now!) - but if you can make it through Act One of If/Then (which may be questionable), I can assure you that a dramatic and impactful pay-off will be found in Act Two (if you can hear most of it).
If/Then could best be described as a star vehicle (Idina Menzel starred in the show's 401-performance Broadway run) and its structure, story and score allow for some notable performances from the various members of its cast.
In the Circle Players production now onstage at Nashville's Z. Alexander Looby Theatre through Sunday, April 7, Emily Summers delivers a strong performance as Elizabeth, the young woman upon whose life the show is focused, and she is supported by a cadre of talented actors who bring their characters to life with earnest integrity and seemingly genuine affection, chief among them Taylor Simon, Morgan Riggs, Mike Sallee and Tyler Inabinette. But perhaps most surprising, primarily because he is a new face in Nashville theater, is the performance of Bryan Royals, who plays Josh, the man that Elizabeth marries in one of two tracks of her life's journey to which we bear witness.
We first meet Elizabeth (Summers) on a sunny day in Madison Square Park, where she's come shortly after moving back to NYC to meet two friends: Kate (Simon), a kindergarten teacher, and Lucas (Sallee), a community organizer. Kate urges Elizabeth to become known as "Liz" to exemplify her new, ambitious outlook on life and career, while Lucas (who's been nursing a long-held infatuation with her) tells her she should remain the "Beth" he's always loved. From that fleeting moment, we see the lives of both "Liz" and "Beth" play out onstage in director Matthew Hayes Hunter's beautifully conceived production.
Yorkey's book provides an ambitious roadmap (or rather, more like a map of the NYC subway system that is, at once, informative and mind-jarring), if you will, for the two paths taken by Elizabeth and the challenges it brings to Hunter's capable cast of actors gives each an opportunity to flex their theatrical muscles and breathe life into the script-bound characters. Likewise, the audience is challenged to keep the people, places and things onstage in the right lanes, which is sometimes muddied by the exposition in Act One that all too often seems far too pedantic. Watching Liz/Beth go through the motions of one horrible date after another becomes boring far too quickly, particularly when it's telegraphed early on that Josh is the man for her (even if it takes one part of her years to come to that realization).
Does the musical's dramatic conceit work? Yes, thanks in large part to the material provided by Kitt and Yorkey that brings Elizabeth's twin stories to life. Yet it's the actors assembled by Hunter who make it work in the Circle Players production. The chemistry found among the actors onstage at the Looby reads as authentic and genuine, rendering their performances far more believable and accessible than a cursory read of the script might indicate. The commitment of the ensemble - and their palpable focus on the matters at hand - guarantee the show's impact will be fully felt, particularly during the dramatic scenes that play out in Act Two that brings the lives of both Liz and Beth to fruition onstage.
However, at the performance reviewed, a sound issue (imagine that!) marred the proceedings in such a way that an important dramatic payoff was pretty much lost. When the microphone of the actor charged with delivering some very important lines of dialogue failed to work, the actor failed to project his voice so that the members of the audience could actually hear what he was saying and the audience had to derive the meaning and intent of the most shattering moment in the play from Summers' response. The emotional moment was lost, the payoff diverted, the complete suspension of disbelief was brought resoundingly down to earth with a thud that still pisses me the hell off...
Summers is impressive as both Liz and Beth (even if you can't help considering just how much she resembles actress Eden Sher from TV's The Middle) and she's able to effectively capture the duality of her character's story arcs. Her interaction with Royals seems very real and contentious and the two actors portray a contemporary couple with honesty and grit. Summers' abilities and her gorgeous voice are shown off to perfection (thanks to Kitt's power ballads originally written for Menzel) with Liz's "What the Fuck?" in Act One and Beth's "You Learn to Live Without" in Act Two.
Royals imbues Josh with charm and warmth, ensuring that his audiences connect with him as certainly as does Beth and he makes an impressive Nashville stage debut that certainly puts him on every director's list of potential leading men for any number of upcoming productions. His "Hey, Kid" in Act Two is one of the production's true highlights.
Simon is terrific as Kate, the best fucking kindergarten teacher in New York, and thankfully the script gives her plenty to do to show off her estimable skills. Her onstage relationship with Riggs as her partner, Anne, rings with authenticity and the two women are great together. "Love While You Can" gives Summers, Simon and Riggs a lovely musical moment. Likewise, Sallee and Inabinette work well together and are showcased in "Best Worst Mistake," which gives Circle audiences a new perspective on the talents of both young men.
Among the other members of the ensemble, Lauren Proctor shows off her own impressive vocals as Beth's protégé in the Manhattan urban planning office, headed up by Jason Bell as Beth's old friend from college who plays an integral role in her career choices. Other notable names among the ensemble are Alexius Frost, Nicholas Ryan and RC Hollingsworth.
Hunter's design aesthetic is perhaps best represented by Renee Robinson's eye-poopin lighting, which brings much color to the set, allowing the audience's imagination to take flight. Jim Manning provides the ideal backdrop for the play's action, easily morphing from one NYC setting to another, and Alexius Frost's costumes clothe the actors with personality and timelessness.
Musical director Emily Dennis and her five-member band of some of Music City's best - Dann Childers, Dale Herr, Tom D'Angelo, Dennis Palmer and Raymond Ridley - perform Yorkey's score with passion, while choreographer Tosha Pendergrast's movement helps to provide another physical element to create a production quite unlike what's come before it on the Looby stage.
If/Then. Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Matthew Hayes Hunter. Choreographed by Tosha Pendergrast. Musical direction by Emily Dennis. Presented by Circle Players at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through April 7. For details, go to www.circleplayers.net Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).