December 10, 2013 at 7:21 am #432416
Saw this Broadway-bound musical on Saturday night at the National in DC right at the end of its tryout run. Since this is one of the higher-profile new shows still to come this season, I thought I’d leave some impressions here for those who are interested. There’s been a lot of early internet chatter about how confused audiences were in the very early stages of the run by the intertwining parallel stories. Apparently a lot of work has been done to clarify, because I didn’t hear any discussion of people being lost or not understanding what was going on. I didn’t find it confusing—a little scattered at times, but not confusing. For those unaware, the basic story is that Elizabeth is a city planner moving back to New York on the cusp of her 40th birthday after a failed marriage in Phoenix (a city which randomly comes in for a lot of abuse in the show—“Teaching city planning in Phoenix is a lot like teaching breathing on the moon”). She meets friends in Washington Square Park one day and a chance encounter gives her a choice to make and the rest of the show traces the diverging paths her life could take. One path is more career-focused and the other more relationship-focused and we see the highs and lows each offers. This fork-in-the-road type of story has been done lots of times before in lots of different formats. Here, we’re given a couple of cues to help us keep our bearings. In one story, Elizabeth is referred to as “Beth”; in the other as “Liz”. Also, the career story is done with a blue lighting scheme and the relationship story with red. Scenes that cross stories or are neutral have a purple hue to the backdrop. (A couple of scenes have green lighting and I nearly lost my shit because I didn’t know what to make of that, lol.) It definitely helps to know the format before you go in, though the first time the lighting changes to blue and the first time it changes to red, there’s also a kind of pause and a strobe effect to clue the audience in about the gimmick.
The first act involves a lot of set-up, because not only do we have to establish the characters and the situation, we also have to establish the presentation format and some of that feels like a slog and as a result the first act seems 10-15 minutes too long. There’s also more talking about city planning than any normal person would be all that interested in, though some of the references (including a design element featuring a map of the NYC subway system on the stage floor reflected in an angled mirror overhead) will probably play well with native New Yorkers. The second act is much more successful overall, since the set-up is done. It’s much more emotionally focused and there’s not so much nattering on about city planning.
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s songs are mostly tuneful, with a pop/rock/folk flavor and generally entertaining lyrics. In the first act, some of the songs (especially Anthony Rapp’s [as Elizabeth’s gay-in-one-story/bi-in-the-other pal Lucas] “Ain’t No Man Manhattan”) are interrupted too frequently by dialogue sequences. In the second act, the songs are allowed more room to breathe and as a result are overall more successful. There aren’t any true clunker songs here, but a couple should probably be cut just because they don’t serve a compelling purpose. “The Story of Jane” is one example—as LaChanze (as another friend, kindergarten teacher Kate) sings to her class about a modern American woman, telling them about Elizabeth’s move back to New York. It’s a fun song, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know and feels like it was shoved in to give the actress another song. Plus, we’ve already got Elizabeth, Liz and Beth, and now OMFG, she’s Jane, too? I wouldn’t be surprised to see that one go or be replaced by the Broadway opening.
None of the problems with the show are unfixable at all (unless you’re of the opinion that you just can’t do a musical about city planning) and in fact overall it’s in pretty good shape for this stage in its development. Michael Grief keeps this complicated undertaking running very smoothly and just needs to keep trimming and clarifying.
What’s completely successful at this point is the cast. In both dialogue and musical sequences, every single actor is spot-on. LaChanze brings just the right balance of sarcasm and warmth to Kate and Anthony Rapp manages to make Lucas feel different from his Mark in “Rent” even though the character outline is similar. He nicely projects determination used to cover self-doubt. As military doctor Josh, James Snyder is appealing and sings his second act solo, an upbeat ballad to his unborn child, with plenty of verve. It’s a sort of post-modern version of “Soliloquy” in “Carousel”. Jenn Colella, Jerry Dixon and Jason Tam do well in smaller supporting parts.
And now, we come to lead Idina Menzel, one of the major reasons this show has moved forward so quickly. In summary, if “Wicked” was a talented singer-actress coming into her own, then “If/Then” is a completely satisfying star turn from a seasoned pro—everything you hope a star turn would be. The score sits very comfortably in her range and her acting in the dialogue sequences feels natural and fresh. This is a tricky role, since Elizabeth/Beth/Liz could come across as irritating—after all, she’s a woman who overanalyzes everything and is paralyzed by choice rather than living in the moment. But Menzel brings the warmth and relatability in spades. It’s also a stunningly huge part, with even more stage time than Elphaba and multiple arcs to play. Menzel takes us through a range of emotions, most particularly in the last half of the second act, when she has “I Love You/I Hate You”, sung to her husband who’s been redeployed in the Army and is a complex number full of conflicting emotions and a scene that has probably been played in some format in countless military households across the country. This is shortly followed by “You Learn to Live Without”, a beautiful song about coping that crosses the Beth and Liz stories. A few scenes later, she melts the audience’s faces off with her eleven o’clock number, “Always Starting Over”, the only true stand-and-deliver belter number in the score. This one is Menzel alone on stage against a background of stars reflected in the overhead mirror and she kills. It’s what the audience has waited for and it gets a tremendous ovation. This performance is in top shape already and Idina will be a major contender come awards season. No other actress is going to have a part this big and varied and be carrying an entire show on their shoulders quite this way.