BWW Review: IF/THEN Stands on Idina Menzel's Star Power

BWW Review: IF/THEN Stands on Idina Menzel's Star Power

IF/THEN is about the intersection in life of choice and chance and the implications of the decision we make about which path to pursue. The theme reflects the existential question that every human being, at one time or another in his/her life, asks. It is echoed in Robert Frost's reflection: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth." To choose or to chance ~ to stay a predetermined course or act on impulse. That is the question, as if there is a right answer, but it is the question that frames this musical.

In the case of IF/THEN, the traveler is Elizabeth Vaughan (Idina Menzel), a thirty-something urban planner, who has returned to Manhattan from Phoenix after an ugly divorce and aims to redefine her life. She stands at a crossroads where choice (her determination to pursue career) conflicts with chance (the unanticipated appearance of a soulmate and the promise of everlasting love). At the moment she is recruited to the job of her dreams, she meets Josh (James Snyder), an Army doctor newly returned from overseas duty, and embarks on an affair that may divert her from fulfilling her ambition.

Since Elizabeth cannot "travel both and be one traveler" to ascertain which is the better path, writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey works a bit of theatrical magic and splits Elizabeth's persona in two. Enter Liz, who pursues love; Beth, career. The play then alternates between their parallel paths and winds toward their destined outcomes.

It's a clever concept but one that gets mired in sometimes confusing shifts between the two story arcs, is laden with subplots that, while sweet, seem extraneous, and has a run time that could easily be cut without compromising the story. After a while, Tom Kitt's amped-up sharply phrased songs become redundant ~ variations on the same "what if" themes ~ and are hardly memorable. Larry Keigwin's choreography is stiff though artsy. On the other hand, Mark Wendland's set design and Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully's kinetic projections (Manhattan motifs and a dynamic New York subway map) provide a delightfully imaginative backdrop to the on-stage action.

If there is a saving grace to this rather predictable variation on the "what if" theme, it is surely ~ but not solely ~ Menzel's rich powerhouse vocals. As she navigates from one path to another, her super moments occur when she breaks into song. She gives her adoring audience all they could possibly want, and that may be worth the price of the ticket. However, what is lacking in her performance is passion, which, because it is Menzel, we may be inclined to forgive.

Anthony Rapp joins his fellow members of the original Broadway cast, appearing as Lucas, an old college flame, now a community activist, who aims to rekindle his romance with Elizabeth. Notwithstanding the fact that they bed together with significant consequence, the mutual attraction is unconvincing.

For my money, IF/THEN's mojo resides in the stellar performance of LaChanze, reprising her role as Kate, Elizabeth's friend, the upbeat irrepressible "lesbian kindergarten teacher," who urges Liz to take a chance on love and is the virtual thread that holds the musical's weave together. LaChanze is a non-stop engine of energy, delivering one knockout song after another and acting up a storm.

The stage is further blessed by the appearance of Janine DiVita. Albeit hers is a secondary role as Kate's lover, Anne, she stands out for her vibrant moves and vocals.

At show's end, an immensely appreciative audience declared their love with a rousing ovation and, as they streamed out of the hall, a salient question loomed overhead. Does it really matter in the long run what choices we make? Will we not ultimately end up in the same place?

IF/THEN continues its run at ASU Gammage in Tempe through January 17th after which the tour will continue with a new cast.

Photo credit to Joan Marcus

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From This Author Herbert Paine

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