BWW Review: Theater West End's IF/THEN Is a Moving, Thought-Provoking, Big-Song Musical You'll Be Glad You Saw
IF you haven't been to Theater West End yet, THEN you're missing out on some of the most creative and talented stage productions in Central Florida.
IF you haven't heard of IF/THEN, THEN you're missing out on one the most moving and fun-spirited musicals of the past few years.
IF more people don't come out to support the fantastic theatre happening here in Sanford, THEN we're all worse off for it.
IF/THEN is the 2014 musical that ran for a year, charted a cast recording at #19 on the Billboard 200 (the highest for a Broadway cast recording since Rent in 1996), then went on a national tour with most of its A-list original cast... and still went overlooked by critics and mainstream audiences alike.
IF people had given it a chance, THEN they might feel a little differently.
Elizabeth is a 38-year-old city planner new to New York and fresh off a divorce. She has big decisions in front of her, and in a Sliding Doors scenario, we get to see two different life choices play out over the course of two acts. As "Beth," she puts her career first. As "Liz," she goes after true love. In both timelines, fate and coincidence stalk her at every turn.
On Broadway, the big beef with the show was that it's supposedly confusing. I'll allow that I'm in the minority, but I've just never found that to be true. If the Liz/Beth divide is ever unclear, context resolves the uncertainty within seconds. (Liz's affinity for wearing smart eyewear helps.) Theater West End's minimalist staging, which is much more intimate than Broadway's, helps to make the action even easier to follow. You're always so close to the actors, without overly complex set pieces in the way, so the visual cues are never hard to spot.
Some have complained that the show is too New York. I suppose it is very New York. But so is half of what we see on Broadway or from Hollywood. If you have any inkling of what life in Manhattan might be like - even if you've never been there - you know all you need to settle into the world of IF/THEN. There's a lot of profanity in that world, by the way, and some sex talk, verging on the Bohemian. Maybe that's what people mean when they say it's "too New York." On Saturday night, the older couple in front of me left at the end of Act I and didn't come back. As it happens, when I saw the national tour in Tampa in 2016, dozens of older couples left after Act I in a grumble, so Theater West End is in good company.
A more salient criticism is that the libretto's dialogue is a little too cutesy and cliché, and that the supporting characters (especially Lucas, Kate, David, and Anne) are never as three-dimensional as they should be for how much time we spend with them. When Elizabeth tells Anne that she's been one of the great platonic loves of her life, or when David says that Elizabeth's beau is his best friend, it's a bit hollow because we haven't seen those relationships developed on-stage.
But IF/THEN is allowed some shortcomings because it's tackling a very big idea. It is a dramatization of the concept of opportunity cost. How different might your life be because you went to the park an hour later than you planned or lingered there a little longer? How much of life's trajectory is informed by choice as opposed to coincidence or what is "supposed" to be? How could your seemingly inconsequential afternoon fundamentally change not only your life but also the lives of your friends and family? IF/THEN has a lot of thoughts on those questions. You get the sense that playwright Brian Yorkey is so focused on the big stuff that he doesn't dwell on the little stuff in between. I don't mind the tradeoff because the overall reward is so worthwhile.
A big part of that reward: the cast. IF/THEN was developed as a star vehicle for Idina Menzel, her first big role after Elsa thawed out. In her place at Theater West End is Ashley Marie Lewis, whose voice is ideally situated for anything Menzelian. This is not an easy role to play: she is on stage almost the entire time, playing two different versions of the same woman, riding an emotional roller coaster, and singing huge songs for two hours on end. It must be exhausting, but you wouldn't know it from Lewis. She is powerful, believable, and likeable in both her roles. Sanford has its own Idina in residency right now - no copycat, no impressionist, no knock-off, but a very talented actress doing fantastic work of her own while filling some very big shoes.
Bradley D. Gale stars as Josh, Elizabeth's star-crossed love interest, and folks, this guy is really good. It's not just his amiable on-stage presence or his buttery vocal runs. Gale has that rare singing quality that makes a voice instantly personable and recognizable. This is my third encounter with the character of Josh, and Gale's performance is my favorite by far.
David Kotary is well suited to any role originated by Anthony Rapp; he lends his Lucas humor and empathy. Lillie Eliza Thomas brings Kate to life with energy and personality. We get some nice singing from them both, as well as from James Berkley (Stephen), Matt Rothenberg (David), Kristen Sheola (Anne), and Danielle Harris (Elena). Harris has been a Theater West End staple, and the audience perks up every time she sings at every show. Sheola's a powerhouse too. The talent-stacked ensemble includes Gabrielle Toledo, Eric Desnoyers, Katie Rose Keith, Kit Riffel, Lauren Anne Andersson, Kasea Seabrook, Haywood Dunston, and Theater West End co-owner Quinn Roberts (it's great to see him showcasing his talents on stage at the end of a long and celebrated inaugural season).
With music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Yorkey, IF/THEN's collection of songs sticks in your head. "It's a Sign" finds the cast having a blast. "Here I Go" and "This Day" sport lovely harmonies. "Always Starting Over" is one of the great eleven-o'clock numbers and was my pick for the best song of 2014. Do yourself a favor and see it staged in context. All the songs sound wonderful with Theater West End's 10-piece orchestra and new sound system, with a well-balanced mix that makes this the theater's best production (technically speaking) to date.
There's a moment when the theater's brick backdrop lights up in purple. It's fitting that the season opened with The Color Purple and ends with IF/THEN, both shows having skipped Orlando in favor of Tampa on their most recent national tours. Theater West End does justice to them both. I feel fortunate that my first full season reviewing theatre for BroadwayWorld happened to coincide with this upstart venue's debut. And we're all fortunate that Roberts and director/co-producer Derek Critzer are so willing to stage musicals that don't often grace Florida's stages. It has become something of a rule: IF you make the trip to Theater West End, THEN you're going to see really creative productions of musicals you might not see elsewhere anytime soon.
IF/THEN runs at Theater West End through September 1, 2019. To get your tickets, visit the theater's website or call 407-548-6285.
What did you think of IF/THEN at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: Theater West End