BWW Reviews: IF/THEN at the National Theatre - Get Ready Broadway for a Hit
It's been about 10 years since the incredible Idina Menzel appeared on a Broadway stage in WICKED where she won the Tony Award for Best Actress. I'll also remember the first time I heard her belt "Defying Gravity" at "Broadway on Broadway", the free Times Sq. concert of Broadway shows. The show had not yet opened and no one had heard the song before and the crowd went wild. I also remember her role as Maureen in RENT that she revived in the film version. So let me start with...I'm a huge fan.
The sell-out crowd at the National Theater was anticipating her first appearance in the world premiere of the new musical IF/THEN. (By the way...I've never seen a show so punctual. You are told on the web site it starts promptly at 7:30 p.m. As I arrived at 7:29 p.m., the ushers were barking "One minute to show, 59, 58, 57..." And sure enough, the show started on time. Theatergoers be warned!)
The lights went dark. The set was dark. The lights went on and there she is standing on a fire-escape high on the set and what does Menzel say? "Hello, it's me!" The crowd erupts with applause. We've all been waiting since WICKED. Yes, we've all seen her on television in "Glee" and films like "Enchanted". But, this...this is where she belongs. What a way to start the evening.
IF/THEN could have called WHAT IF. Another title could have been BASHERT, the Yiddish word for "it was meant to be", or "fate", or "destiny". Because that is what this pre-Broadway musical is all about. What if this happened or what if that happened. The book by Brian Yorkey (who also did the wonderful lyrics) can be confusing at times since the plot deals with two Menzels...one as Liz and one as Beth and sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
Before Liz and Beth return to NYC, she was in Phoenix as Elizabeth, married, 39, with no children teaching Urban Planning. Elizabeth comments that "Teaching city planning in Phoenix is like teaching breathing on the moon." She divorces, leaves Phoenix (which gets more than a few zingers aimed at it) and arrives in the Big Apple ready for a new start.
Elizabeth becomes two different characters. There's "Liz" who gets a job with the MTA as a planner and finds love with a soldier returning from war, Josh (the superb James Snyder) who she's met at the park by chance and is a doctor, and "Beth" who gets a high-profile job as a city-planner working on waterfront development with an old friend Stephen (the wonderful Jerry Dixon) who is constantly presenting her with terrific job opportunities but also has a romantic reason as well. Here in this job, Beth can find room in her city planning for the under-privileged at the behest of her friend and community organizer, Lucas.
The story can get complicated. There's a scene that Beth is in bed with Lucas, then goes to the tiny, typical NY bathroom and sings "What the Fuck", returns to her bed where under the covers is Josh. You get the picture.
The show opens with a clever set up. There's Lucas (played by Anthony Rapp, Menzel's co-star from RENT) seated at a table in Madison Park. He tells the lovely Kate (the incredible LaChanze) he's waiting for someone. Well, Kate is also waiting for someone. As it turns out, they both know Elizabeth who has set them up. Kate is a "terrific" kindergarten teacher and later has a superb number teaching her students "The Story of Jane".
The superb ensemble sings the wonderful opening number "If I Told You" showcasing all the various occupations that make up New York and another great song "Surprise". The lovely choreography by Larry Keigwin reminded me of the great modern work by Paul Taylor, very fluid. The show is certainly an homage to the gay life-style. When have you seen choreography where men lift men? When's the last musical you saw where two women get married? Lucas not only has had a relationship with Elizabeth in the past (and the present) finds his partner in David (Jason Tam) who owns a house and Lucas is so excited that he can raise chickens in the backyard. Rapp has a great duet with Manzel with "Some Other Me" which I'm sure will remind theater-goers of their time together in RENT.
Another wonderful duet is "Here We Go" sung by Menzel and Snyder.
As expected, Menzel has a superb "11 o'clock" number "Always Starting Over".
Since the show is in previews, there is no listing of songs. But it did seem that the show was almost sung-though. There is so much music and it is all terrific. The music by Tom Kitt is just plain fabulous. Like I commented when I saw the Kitt/Yorkey musical NEXT TO NORMAL at the Arena Stage where I raved about it and predicted a Broadway transfer, likewise, IF/THEN I predict will be a huge success on Broadway. I can't wait for the CD.
Kudos to Director Michael Grief, who worked with Menzel and Rapp on RENT, and also directed NEXT TO NORMAL with the composers Kitt and Yorkey, for doing a great job with the cast. Also kudos to Bernard Telsey for the amazing cast which includess Jean Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence and the great ensemble: Joe Cassidy, Miguel Cervantes, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Klemons, Tyler McGee, Ryann Redmond, Joe Aaron Reid, Ann Sanders, Marc Delacruz, Charles Hagerty, Janet Krupin, and Pearl Sun.
Besides these wonderful actors, what truly stands out is the music. The 13 piece orchestra under the baton of Carel Dean is just fabulous. I do wish there were more strings. Michael Starobin does a masterful job with the orchestrations.
As we left the theater, my wife turned to me and said, "Let's get tickets for Broadway and see it again." I concur.
You only have until December 8 to see IF/THEN in DC. Call 800-514-3849 for tickets or visit ifthenthemusical.com.