If/Then more like So/What? (review)

At my favorite theatre in New York (the Richard Rodgers), and seen in preview on 3/21 (the show opens 3/30), Brian Yorkey and Tim Kitt’s new musical (next to normal), “If/Then” is providing Idina Menzel with a shriek-worthy score and not much to support it.

The show is in trouble from its very first sentence — a self-absorbed New York woman nearing-40 has divorced her husband with whom she has moved to Arizona for the past decade and returned to NYC to start anew. Right there, you already have a problem — the audience is asked to care about a woman who has divorced her husband because she felt bored and wanted “more out of life”. Who cares?

What follows is the show’s high concept (playing out on a gorgeous 10 million dollar multi-level set by Mark Wendland, beautifully lit by Kenneth Posner) — Elizabeth imagines two scenarios — one as Liz, and one as Beth, if she had made different choices (not in the past, mind you, where the audience already knows she’s bad at making good decisions) but in a make-believe present day. In one, she goes with a friend to a coffee shop and her life takes a fateful turn toward romance — in the other, she goes along with another friend to a different event and it sets in spin a great career in NYC.

Spoilers Follow: what happens next is so inconsequential it reflects the Raiders of the Lost Ark Syndrome (Thank you Big Bang Theory!) — it doesn’t matter what storyline you convolutedly follow, the ending is the same! With or without Nazi chase scenes, the ark is still opened and destroys everyone. With or without the “two choices” the show reveals the SAME eventual ending….

So, to get there, you have to suspend belief that anything here is real in any way other than in Elizabeth’s mind as she contemplates two different options — and you have to somehow care about this self-absorbed egotistical woman and her self-absorbed friends. There isn’t a single character on stage that you really care about, and probably wouldn’t have any of these people as your friends in real life. They’re the kind of people I spent 14 years of my life in NYC going out of my way to avoid, not spend 2:40 onstage watching.

Yorkey’s story doesn’t work on any level. His score with Kitt fares better, and there are a few strong tunes, well delivered by the very good cast.

Idina Menzel sings her heart out in every number — and I do mean sings her heart out in every number. Thankfully, she gets a few slower, quieter moments, but for the most part, she “sings her heart out” in “every number”. Clearly, the score is written and shaped directly for her, and every song is greeted by audience shrieks of enjoyment instead of standard applause — a trend that was created in Wicked, and which carries over here with her now older audience groupies.

Anthony Rapp sings and acts well, and has his own audiences shriekers in attendance. LaChanze turns in a fine performance, lacking any nuance, but certainly worthy of her musical skills. Faring best are Jerry Dixon as her boss, helping with her career while conflicted as to his feelings (the resolution of his storyline is the least realistic of any of them in the compact ending), and James Snyder (yes, that tv-star James Snyder) who sings beautifully and is given the woefully underwritten part of Idina’s love interest Josh — its as if every scene that he and Idina are in together was written in such a way that his talent never oversteps the bounds of Idina’s stardom — as a result he looks like he’s hitting his marks and moving along which creates a lack of charisma between the two of them.

There are some beautiful moments in the show, but audience members expecting a thoughtful, meaningful musical follow up to their previous work “next to normal” are going to be sorely disappointed.

There were sniffles toward the end of the show — and I have NO IDEA what they were crying about — there wan’t a single thing in this show that hit me as emotional, or even emotion-filled. But clearly I must not be the target demographic for this show.

The sole thing that this show has going for it is that it is original — in a season where every other musical is based on a movie or pre-existing source material, its nice to see people thinking about and creating something original. The payoff here, though, is not worthy.

Recommended only for musical theatre die-hards, and Idina Menzel fans. Not recommended for casual theater-goers.

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