Thursday, 27 March 2014

Idina Menzel in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's IF/THEN

     Hooray! an intelligent, witty, tuneful adult musical about life in the twenty-first century! And on Broadway, no less! Better yet, IF/THEN is not based on a movie. Well, that's not quite true. It is likely that the creators got their idea from the 1998 film, SLIDING DOORS, but this is not an adaptation but a new take on the same idea. Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), a recently divorced woman from Phoenix, moves to New York City. She goes to Madison Square Park to meet two old college friends, Kate (LaChanze), a lesbian kindergarten teacher, and Lucas (Anthony Rapp), an activist. Lucas, who is bisexual, was a college boyfriend  She also runs into Josh (James Snyder), a doctor recently returned from his second tour of duty as a medic in Afghanistan. At this point, her life and the lives of her best friends could go in different directions depending on the choices they make in this park on this sunny afternoon. The rest of the show moves back and forth between these two sets of possibilities.  In one, she falls in love with and marries Josh and becomes the mother of two children while teaching urban planning at a local college. In the other, she accepts a big job in the city planning office and moves up the career ladder. The musical dramatizes the impossible choices some women have to make between family and career. We also see in the two narratives the stresses and strains on a lesbian relationship and a gay male relationship. Can Kate and her partner Anne (Jenn Collella) deal with infidelity? How do Lucas and his partner David (Jason Tam) deal with parenting? One of the many lovely things about IF/THEN is the way that it shows that all couples, gay or straight, face the same dilemmas.
     The narrative problem the authors (Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) and director (Michael Greif) had to face was how to make sure the audience understood this split narrative in which the central characters alternate between one route their lives could take and another. Thanks to clear writing, some crucial signals (Elizabeth is Liz in one narrative and Beth in the other) and a color scheme (red for one narrative, blue for another), all this is quite clear.
     The score (music by Tom Kitt) is tuneful and varied. Kitt's music has a little bit of everything -- rock, folk, power ballads (Idina Menzel gets the best 11 o'clock number since "Roses's Turn"), and good old-fashioned show tunes. Actually some of the sweetest music sung by the co-stars, particularly the music given to the gay male couple. If one sometimes feels that they are not appreciating Kitt's tunes, it is because you don't want to miss one work of Yorkey's witty, literate, often touching lyrics.
     IF/THEN is also unabashedly a New York musical, a celebration of the joys and sorrows of living in the metropolis.
     The show has been given a perfect production. The cast is uniformly excellent. In some ways, IF/THEN is an old-fashioned star vehicle. Idina Menzel is onstage for almost the entire show and she gives a real star turn. She has powerful support from her three co-stars Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder. Jason Tam also gets a couple of lovely numbers. Everyone sings well but, equally important, everyone acts well. Greif's constantly moving staging captures the pace of life in the city. IF/THEN is also one of the most stunningly beautiful productions I have seen in a long while. Mark Wendland's simple, but effective constantly shifting scenery and Kenneth Posner's lighting design hd the audience literally oohing and aahing.
     Over the past few years, all the really good musicals I have seen have been off-Broadway, while Broadway producers seemed interested only in kiddie shows, retreads of movies that don't need to be musicals (KING KONG?? Really???), and jukebox musicals. IF/THEN reminds one of the days when musical theatre was for grownups.
     If I gave stars, this would get 5.
     The Richard Rodgers Theatre (formerly the 46th Street Theatre), site of some of the great musicals of the past, has been beautifully restored and refurbished. The auditorium looks lovely and the large, new, modern bathrooms are among Broadway's best. This is one of the more pleasant Broadway theatres.
IF/THEN. Richard Rodgers Theatre. March 27, 2014.

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