Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Complex, Confusing 'If/Then' Fails to Make a Cohesive Statement -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 6

If the sum of what happens onstage matched the merits of its many estimable parts, then If/Then surely would be a better show.

Admirably, the musical--which opened on Broadway in March 2014 and ran for about a year--features an original narrative, rather than adapting a popular movie for the stage. (Note my previous review, of Sister Act.)

If/Then's book was written by Brian Yorkey, who also wrote the lyrics to Tom Kitt's score. The two had previously collaborated on Next to Normal, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and represents one of the best "fresh idea" musicals of recent vintage.

Although the "What if I did this instead of that, how might my life be drastically different?" dual storylines reminded me of the Sliding Doors movie and other variations on a theme, the show's premise seemed rather unique...and promising. Continuity and cohesion challenges conceivably would be adroitly handled by director Michael Greif, whose brilliant concept for Rent remains a touchstone of musical theater direction, and who also made the difficult Next to Normal quite affectingly comprehensible.

The wonderful Adele Dazeem, er, Idina Menzel, starred on Broadway, and during the first 4 months of the National Tour, which began in October.

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
Menzel left the tour before it arrived in Chicago Tuesday night, but the lovely and engaging Jackie Burns made for a rather terrific ersatz Idina, with wonderful singing and fine acting that--especially from the top of the balcony--made me feel none too shortchanged for not seeing the Broadway star yet again. (I'd seen her in Wicked and in concert; Burns also has played Elphaba, but this was my first time seeing her onstage.)

But still in the cast, as on Broadway, is Anthony Rapp, who starred as Mark in the original cast of Rent, alongside Menzel.

American Idol alum Tamyra Gray, who I happened to see in Rent on Broadway in 2008, also does excellent work, and the If/Then touring cast is deep with other Broadway veterans--most notably Matthew Hydzik--and top-notch performers.

And with just a modicum of Spotifamiliarization before attending on Tuesday, several of Kitt & Yorkey's songs sounded quite good, including "What If?," "It's A Sign," "A Map of New York," "You Never Know," "What the Fuck?," "Here I Go," "No More Wasted Time," "Some Other Me" and more. These were nicely spread around to characters played by Burns, Rapp, Gray and others, and all sang their parts quite well.

So referencing back to where I started, If/Then is a newly-conceived musical with a neat idea, proven creative team, terrific songs, excellent performers and a great director.

...and yet I didn't like it.

And it wasn't just me. Certainly, reviews on Broadway were rather mixed, the show failed to earn a Tony nomination for Best New Musical and the year-long NYC run doesn't bespeak a smash hit.

But more acutely, these were just a few of the comments I randomly heard from patrons at intermission at the splendiferous Oriental Theater:
"It's hurting my head."

"There's so many things wrong with it."
"I don't really like the book at all."
Now normally, I don't like to reveal too many plot specifics because I think it best for any viewer to encounter the material on their own. But my hesitancy here is more because I was quite confused and might not get things right.

As best I can relay, Burns stars as Elizabeth, a New Yorker nearing 40 who has returned to Manhattan after several years in Phoenix and a recent divorce.

She connects with two old friends, Lucas (Rapp), a housing rights activist who calls her Beth, and Kate (Gray), a kindergarden teacher who calls her Liz. On an initial afternoon in the park, both friends want Beth/Liz to tag along, separately.

So she does.

And over the course of the two-act musical, both contingent strains of the course Elizabeth's life follows are interwoven.

Prominent in one or the other threads is Josh (Hydzik), a smitten Army doctor who has just returned from a tour of duty, Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), a former colleague and municipal NYC bigwig who wants her to work for him, Kate's lover Anne (Janine DiVita) and David (Marc Delacruz), another friend who also factors in with Lucas.

I was fully awake, utilizing binoculars regularly, basically familiar with the concept and several songs, and trying my darndest to follow what was going on.

But rather early in Act I, and then often subsequently, I got lost as to what thread we were in.

Worse, despite weighty topics explored by the lead and other characters--friendship, romance, divorce, insecurity, love, the fine line between friends & lovers, sexual propriety, adultery, pregnancy, motherhood, career advancement, integrity, war, death, life-altering moments and more--the challenge of just following the "if/then" conceit never enabled me to much care about Elizabeth, anyone else or whatever the heck was happening.

As referenced above, it was an ambitious idea--perhaps pitching Menzel on a more straightforward starring vehicle about an intelligent, attractive woman struggling to recraft her life in the big city seemed too Mary Tyler Moore-ish--but for me, it simply didn't work.

Even with abundant good songs and strong work by Burns, Rapp, Gray and others, I was lukewarm at best by intermission and spent Act II--despite some rather poignant situations--just wanting the show to end.

I don't walk out of performances, out of courtesy and a desire to review shows fairly, but simply in terms of my enjoyment I was tempted.

And others around me gave in to temptation.

The obvious thought is that If/Then would make for a more enticing musical if it opted simply to follow the "If" or the "Then," especially with a winning focal point like Burns (and presumably, Menzel).

That likely wouldn't earn as many points for originality or niftiness, but despite sterling pedigrees all around, and undoubtedly infinite polishing of the material in bringing it to Broadway and beyond, If/Then is simply too muddled to make a cohesive, definitive artistic statement.

Or even to allow for holistic enjoyment of the many parts that are rather good.

No comments: