NEW YORK – At a time when the majority of Broadway musicals are repackaged movies, processed jukebox assemblies or time-tested revivals, any original contemporary adult work deserves to be applauded for its ambition. But If/Then earns applause primarily for Idina Menzel. The Tony-winning uber-belter returns after a decade-long absence, galvanizing her enduring Wicked fan base but also riding high from her voice work in Disney’s Frozen, her mega-selling empowerment anthem “Let It Go,” and the insta-meme phenomenon of John Travolta mangling her name at the Oscars. The good news is that the erstwhile Adele Dazeem looks and sounds sensational in a vehicle tailored to her talents, leaving no mystery as to why audiences adore her.
The disappointing news, however, is that while it’s sweet and sincere, this is also a banal show about uninteresting people that strings together weary platitudes in place of a plot. Or make that two demi-plots. Lifting its inspiration from movies like the tedious Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy Sliding Doors, this musical about fate, choice, possibility and divergent paths asks how a split-second, random decision can reshape the course of a life. And it asks that question again and again and again, with the blunt insistency of a mallet.
Reflecting, early on, about her self-sabotaging habit of obsessing over every little choice only to end up usually making the wrong one, Menzel’s character, 38-year-old newly divorced urban planner Elizabeth, sings: “How do I make such a major event out of something so small?” That in essence is what the performer is doing with this sleekly designed production, taking vanilla material and giving it nuance, emotional scope and even a sly, sardonic edge by virtue of her expressive vocals, her flinty characterization and the effortless command with which she holds the stage. But If Menzel weren’t in it, Then this show would be pretty much unwatchable. It also wouldn’t be doing stellar business of around $1 million a week in previews.
The musical has a score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the team behind the 2010 Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal. Like that domestic drama in song, about a family’s troubles with a bipolar, manic-depressive mom, this new project aims to use the musical form to consider messy issues experienced by real people. It reunites Menzel with director Michael Greif and co-star Anthony Rapp, her comrades, 18 years ago, in the landmark musical-theater adventure that was the original production of Rent.
Rent explored survival on the boho fringes of Lower East Side New York in the late 1980s via a group of struggling young artists and musicians in the looming shadow of the AIDS crisis. If/Then, by contrast, takes in a parallel group 10 to 15 years older as they navigate the 21st century challenges of life, career and relationships in the same city. But the dilemmas of selling out and getting on board with Manhattan real estate developers, of whether to live by strategy or by impulse, somehow don’t quite pack the same emotional charge as drug addiction, poverty or life-threatening illness.
To be fair though, If/Then owes more to the model of another groundbreaking metropolitan musical, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth‘s Company. In place of that show’s commitment-phobic Bobby, surrounded by married friends urging him to get hitched, Kitt and Yorkey position Elizabeth back in the city and looking to start fresh after 12 years of stultifying marriage to the wrong guy in Phoenix. She’s been in the desert, geddit?
As twin sidekicks and confidants, the writers have supplied her not with friends so much as types from the urban handbook of political correctness: Plucky, Kooky, Black Lesbian Kindergarten Teacher, Kate (LaChanze), and Earnest, White, Neurotic Gay (but Occasionally Bi-Curious) Radical College Chum, Lucas (Rapp). It’s a close contest as to which of these well-meaning meddlers is the more insufferable; I am unable to declare a winner. They each have their respective romantic appendages, played by Jenn Colella and Jason Tam, though neither of them brings much to the table personality-wise. They are as superfluous to the show as Larry Keigwin‘s self-consciously “now” choreography.
Despite a helpful assist from Kenneth Posner‘s lighting scheme, Yorkey doesn’t always succeed in delineating the alternate versions of Elizabeth’s new life – she’s Liz in one, Beth in the other – but the basics are clear enough. They are broadly distinguished into good and not-so-good outcomes, depending on whether she leaves a Madison Square Park rendezvous with Kate or Lucas. In one option, she takes a city-planning job and stacks up professional achievements though remains personally unfulfilled after a clumsy overture to her married boss (Jerry Dixon) and an ill-considered hookup with Lucas. In the other, she becomes an underpaid teacher and finds love and family with Josh (James Snyder), a Nebraska surgeon fresh out of the army, though that experience also comes with its own sorrows. The latter thread provides a handful of affecting second-act moments, and Snyder comes closest to fleshing out a real character for Menzel’s Elizabeth to bounce off.
The twists and turns of “what if,” “might have been” and “if only” are explored in the kind of exhaustive detail usually reserved for therapy. At the risk of sounding sexist, young women are probably more inclined to romanticize and dwell over this stuff than men, and the swooning girls seated around me appeared rapt. (They also seemed tickled to death by Menzel singing “What the Fuck?”) But this is a show that spends two and a half hours telling you what it’s about while ending up being about not much at all.
The creative team and committed actors all appear to be laboring under the misapprehension that there’s genuine profundity here. However, there’s little that couldn’t be found on an inspirational greeting card about throwing caution to the wind, seizing opportunities, forging connections and building a life. Kitt’s songs, while melodic, stick to a diluted Broadway interpretation of rock, pop, funk and power ballad that rarely lingers long in the head. And Yorkey’s lyrics don’t advance the plot so much as reiterate its themes in a show that has no use for subtext. Having characters sing the word “cliche” multiple times is playing with fire.
Greif interweaves the two strands with reasonable fluidity on Mark Wendland‘s stylized set. Its scaffolds, frames, stairs and catwalk provide a striking representation of a city of infinite choices, with a mirrored overhang illustrating that there are two sides to every story.
But the musical is really all about the blazing supernova at its center, Menzel, who may not scream vulnerability, but she has the spirit and charisma to carry even weak material. When she unleashes that industrial-strength lung power as Elizabeth takes the plunge with Josh in “Here I Go,” or in her closing number, “Always Starting Over,” her admirers (“Fanzels,” if we absolutely must call them that) get what they came for. Too bad she’s not in a show worthy of her talents.
Venue: Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Idina Menzel, LaChanze, Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, Jerry Dixon, Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence, Joe Cassidy, Miguel Cervantes, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Klemons, Tyler McGee, Ryann Redmond, Joe Aaron Reid, Ann Sanders
Director: Michael Greif
Music: Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics: Brian Yorkey
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Musical director: Carmel Dean
Vocal arrangements: Annmarie Milazzo
Choreographer: Larry Keigwin
Presented by David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Nancy Nagel Gibbs, Fox Theatricals, Marc Platt