If/Then? No/Thanks.

Nov 13

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Idina Menzel (center) and members of the original Broadway cast perform Tom Kitt and Briany Yorkey’s If/Then at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Menzel as Elizabeth and James Snyder as Josh work through a timeline. Photos by Joan Marcus

If/Then is not a musical I like much. I saw it on Broadway because I was enthusiastic about creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey after their powerhouse effort on Next to Normal (a show that I had problems with but admired). My reaction – meh – was very much the same when I saw If/Then in its touring incarnation featuring much of the original cast, including star Idina Menzel.

There are some pretty melodies, good songs and affecting moments in the show, primarily courtesy of an excellent cast working hard to make something of this rather mushy tale. The choreography is ridiculous and constantly calls attention to itself in this contemporary tale of real-life, grown-up relationships and the choices we make. Imagine the TV show “thirtysomething” mashed up with the Ernest Flatt Dancers from “The Carol Burnett Show” and you’ll get an idea of what the show actually looks like. Watching the touring production at the Orpheum Theatre, part of the SHN season, I couldn’t help think that Kitt and Yorkey were attempting to do what Stephen Sondheim and George Furth were doing in Company and that is use music to slice open the complex emotions of being a functioning adult in society, making relationships with friends, lovers, family while trying to realize your true self. During the seemingly endless number that ends Act 1, “Surprise,” about two birthday parties (everything in the show is in twos thanks to its Sliding Doors parallel lives gimmick), the edgy, surprising brilliance of Company kept flashing through my brain while I processed the wholly uninvolving scene before me. There’s a lot of earnestness here but not much depth or entertainment value.

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The songs simply pour forth in a similar-sounding stream for nearly three hours. A lot of it is appealing but without much emotional heft. Characters seem to be much the same before, during and after the song, so there really doesn’t seem to be much point to their bursting into song.

The couple exceptions involve anything sung by LaChanze, who will make anything she sings seem deep, important and transformative. Alas, she doesn’t have much to sing, and when her character does get a big number, “What Would You Do,” primarily in duet with her girlfriend, it gets pretty shrieky (echoing Menzel’s lesbian duet in Rent, “Take Me Or Leave Me,” a much more engaging number).

And the other exceptions are the big solos for Menzel, which, strangely, come four songs apart in the second act. “You Learn to Live Without” is the best character song in the show, a moment when Menzel’s bifurcated character, has a real moment of connection. The other, “Always Starting Over,” is the mega-belt number tailor made for Menzel to please her Wicked and Frozen fans. The song is a showy showstopper customized to showcase Menzel’s incredibly dynamic voice. It’s a classic 11 o’clock number and sets up the ending perfectly, an ending that is almost touching save for the fact that it has taken too much work parsing the two stories (in one Menzel is Liz, the other Beth, one with glasses, one without) and the mild confusion results in mild emotion at the end.

Menzel’s male costars have to wrangle some middling material. Anthony Rapp as an old college flame who has veered more toward the male end of the relationship spectrum, has one decent song, “You Don’t Need to Love Me” and one awful one, “Best Worst Mistake.” James Snyder as the Army doctor whom Liz/Beth meets by chance in Central Park, has a sweet song, “You Never Know,” and one that tries so hard to be sweet it’s just maudlin, “Hey Kid” (a Maltby-Shire rehash that was on the corny side the first time around).

What saves the show is Menzel’s star power. Neither of the Liz/Beth parallels is particularly interesting, but she brings humor, charisma and, of course, that voice, to the party, and that’s where the crackle to If/Then (which really seems like it wanted to be called What If?, like the lackluster opening number) begins and ends in this or any other timeline.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Idina Menzel about her work on If/The for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
If/Then continues through Dec. 6 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$212. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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