If/Then? No/Thanks.

If Then 1
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.

If Then 2

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.

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.

`Wicked’ witches swarm Union Square

Green-faced fans of all kinds swarmed San Francisco’s Union Square on Friday, Sept. 26 – Wicked Day in San Francisco, according to a proclamation from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom – at a party celebrating Wicked’s return to the city that gave it birth next January. Photos by J. Lynne McVey


San Francisco has often been compared to the Emerald City of Oz. On Friday in Union Square, the comparison was more than apt.

A full-on party, complete with balloons, bubbles and babies bedecked in witchery, surrounded the noon hour in celebration of Wicked, the worldwide hit musical about the witches of Oz that got its start in San Francisco.

Wicked, which premiered at the Curran Theatre in 2003, has become a phenomenon of over-the-rainbow proportions. The show returned briefly in the summer of 2005, but this January, Wicked flies back into town – this time at the Orpheum – for an open-ended run that producers foresee lasting at least a year.

It was no coincidence that the face-painting booths, the singing and trivia contests, the proclamation from the Mayor’s office declaring Wicked Day in San Francisco and performances by cast members from the Los Angeles company occurred on the same day that “Wicked” tickets went on sale.

SHN/Best of Broadway CEO Greg Holland described Wicked as a “theatrical earthquake” first felt in San Francisco. “We were the first fans,” he said, “so we take pride in the show’s coming back.”

Producer David Stone who, along with producing partner Marc Platt, helped bring Wicked to life, said it’s an emotional thing to bring the show back to the place it started.

Looking around a Union Square crowded with miniature witches, moms and daughters, teenagers and fans of all stripes and colors, Stone said he remembered being locked in a hotel room with the entire creative team at the Clift for eight hours making cuts.

Looking up at the Cheesecake Factory atop Macy’s, Stone remembered taking star Kristin Chenoweth (who originated the role of Glinda) out for a giant piece of cheesecake to ease her worries when some of her funny lines had to be cut for legal reasons (MGM, the movie studio behind The Wizard of Oz, was being very careful about what the Wicked folks could and couldn’t use from the land of Oz).

“I remember Marc and (composer) Stephen (Schwartz) having an animated discussion in front of the Geary Theater that ended up in the street,” Stone said. “And one time, Kristin was taking a breather in front of the theater when a homeless man came up to her and said she looked like an alien. She was pretty upset until she realized she was still wearing her head microphone and earpiece.”

After the event over lunch, Stone recalled the tough birth of Wicked.

“New musicals just don’t want to be born,” he said. “The whole creative team basically saw the same show from the beginning, and we worked toward that, but the last 10 to 20 percent was tough to work out. We knew it was working and saw what it could be. That put the pressure on us not to screw up.”

Stone admitted that tension mounted, especially between Schwartz, director Joe Mantello and book writer Winnie Holzman.

“Everybody loves each other now – and why not? – but the nearly four months we took off between San Francisco and Broadway was tough. March and I did a lot of shuttle diplomacy. But by the time rehearsals started in New York, everyone was fine.”

Stone said those months in between the San Francisco production and the opening of New York was the best possible route the show could have taken. He credits Schwartz with the idea of not rushing straight to Broadway.

“I can’t even tell you how valuable that time was,” Stone said. “Stephen knew that once the train left the station, it would be unstoppable. It cost us a million and a half dollars, and it was worth it. I don’t know about these shows like The Little Mermaid, Young Frankenstein and Shrek and how they have time to get done what needs to get done between out of town and Broadway.”

Now that Wicked is a worldwide sensation – with four companies abroad in London, Australia, Japan, Germany and four in the U.S. in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and on tour – Stone finds his days consumed with witchy business that sells about $9.5 million in tickets every week.

But he has managed to produce other shows, some of which we’ve seen in San Francisco such as Fully Committed, The Vagina Monologues and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

He may be working again with the Spelling Bee team of composer William Finn and director/librettist James Lapine, who are reportedly at work on a musical version of the hit indie film Little Miss Sunshine. He’s hopeful about a rock musical that’s still evolving called Next to Normal about a woman (played by Alice Ripley) with bipolar disorder and the effect her illness has on her family.

Earlier in the day, Stone summed up his Wicked experience with a memory: the first preview at the Curran and Idina Menzel as Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West in training, makes her entrance and comes running downstage toward the audience.

“Here was this character people had known and been scared of most of their lives and she turns out to be nothing like they thought she was,” he said. “She’s more complicated than they could have imagined, and that’s a big idea to put across, but the audience got it in a moment. In that moment we understood what this show might be. This country likes to point fingers and say you are this: right or left, black or white. Maybe there’s no right or left or red or blue – only green.”

Wicked begins performances on Jan. 27, 2009 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.shnsf.com

Idina Menzel wants your video

Tony Award-winning singer/actress Idina Menzel once was Wicked.

Now she’s going viral.

Menzel, who is on a concert tour promoting her most recent solo album, “I Stand,” received a fan video as a birthday present inspired by the title song from her new album.

Now Menzel has her own channel on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/Idinamenzel?ob=1

And there’s a site on Facebook as well: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Idina-Menzels-I-Stand-Page/29492957536

She’s asking fans to submit their own videos declaring what they stand for. So far on the channel there are five videos. Maybe you should submit one.

Menzel’s concert tour pulls into San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre Aug. 14. Visit http://www.idinamenzel.com/ for information.

Idina Menzel flying into SF

A Tony Award-winner for Wicked (and we all know it isn’t easy being green), Idina Menzel is bringing her concert tour to the Bay Area.

The former Rent star, who just released a major label album called I Stand, will play the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre on Aug. 14.

Though touring to support her new disc, Menzel (who appeared on big screens, but did not sing in Disney’s Enchanted), will not disappoint fans who want to hear her sing some of her famous show tunes. As Menzel told Playbill.com: “It’s not such a hard stretch because the shows I’ve been in are contemporary. I take them out of their context and unplug them a little bit and strip them down and put them more into the context of my show. They seem to work really well, and they’re not changed so much that die-hard theatre fans would be disappointed, I don’t think. I feel like I’m getting a good response. So that’s really nice for me, to kind of join all my worlds together, and it doesn’t feel like it’s so erratic. It feels cohesive, and it feels like all one artist.”

For information visit www.idinamenzel.com.

Enchanted by `Enchanted’

Last night I attended a screening of Disney’s big holiday movie, Enchanted, and I have to say, I was pretty charmed by the notion of a classic Disney animated feature turned on its head and morphed into a modern-day, live-action musical.

The trailer gives you a pretty good idea what the movie’s all about:

The songs are by the Academy Award-winning dynamic Disney duo of Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz and Alan (Beauty and the Beast) Menken. The pair previously collaborated on Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And though there aren’t enough songs for my taste, there are two — a huge, joyful production number in Central Park that ends in a veritable festial surrounding Bethesda Fountain, and a romantic waltz at a ball sung by Jon McLaughlin — that make me anxious for the CD (slated for release Nov. 20, and the movie comes out Nov. 21).

Amy Adams plays Giselle, a gentle (and somewhat simpleminded) lass who has Snow White’s woodland cottage and affinity for all creatures great and small. In her hand-drawn animation bliss, she has Ariel’s red hair and Belle’s taste in clothes. Her Prince Charming (Edward, actually, played by James Marsden in his second musical of the year after Hairspray) is more taken with himself than with Giselle, but every prince needs his princess.

Of course Edward’s stepmother, the Queen (Susan Sarandon chewing the scenery), has a problem with a potential new queen, so she and her bumbling sidekick (Timothy Spall) figure out a way to kick Giselle out of animated fairy tale land and into the harsh reality of Times Square.

Soon Prince Edward, the sidekick and, eventually, the queen herself, end up in the real world, where people, doggone it, just don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Giselle is saved from a downpour by handsome lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey, naturally), single dad to an adorable princess-deprvied daughter (Dad wants her to have strong women role models like Marie Curie and Harriet Tubman). Of course they think this beautiful redhead is absolutely bonkers, but they both fall for her charms.

Robert’s somewhat harsh girlfriend is played by Idina Menzel (the Tony Award-winning star of Schwartz’s Wicked), who doesn’t even get to sing a song, which is a shame.

There’s a lot of charm in this movie — not the least of which is a computer-animated chipmunk named Pip that nearly steals the picture — and the “let’s make fun of musicals while loving them at the same time” tone works well .

That said, I have reservations — and they’re cynical and very non-fairy tale in spirit. I can just hear the Disney corporate meetings that concocted what amounts to a giant commerical for its new line of princess toys and princess costumes and princess birthday party kits and princess everything under the sun. The princess business is already booming, and this movie is sure to kick it into even higher gear (I hear there are already Macy’s tie-ins).

I’m all for girl-power, feminist-revisionist fairy tales, and when, at the end of Enchanted, it’s up to Giselle to save her mister in distress, it should be a lot more triumphant than it is. There were so many opportunities to be clever and smart here, and Adams’ utterly captivating performance (sincere and silly in equal measure, knowing and hearfelt and, yes, enchanting) could have take the movie to a much more finely etched portrait of female empowerment and charm. But the script (and the heavy-duty special effects) ultimately disappoints.

And may I chime in with all the 10-year-old girls and complain that we don’t get to see the final, most important wedding (there is a wedding, but it’s not really the one we want to see). And there should be a great final musical number, not a soundtrack song by Carrie Underwood.

Here’s the official Enchanted Web site. There are film clips and behind-the-scenes glimpses.

Make `ShowBusiness’ your business

One of the most interesting documentaries of the year had nothing to do with health care or Iraq.

ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway sort of slipped in and out of theaters without a whole lot of fanfare, which is really too bad because director Dori Berinstein has created a fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of four major musicals opening in New York during the 2003-2004 season.

Luckily, the movie came out on DVD this week (Liberation Entertainment, $28.95).

For her movie, Berinstein picked four musicals to follow, and boy did she pick good ones: Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change and Taboo.

Bay Area audiences, of course, got the first look at Wicked during its pre-Broadway tryout. We had the great fortune to see Caroline, and Avenue Q made its overdue local debut last August. The only real mystery in this bunch is Taboo, the Rosie O’Donnell-produced ’80s flashback revolving around Boy George: his life, his music and himself (he was in the cast).

Of the four, Wicked and Avenue Q were monster hits and are still running. Caroline is an esteemed flop by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. And Taboo is known as one of Broadway’s great disasters.

The movie follows each of the shows from the summer of 2003 up to the Tony Awards in 2004 when Avenue Q upset favorite Wicked for the Best Musical award.

Along the way, we get fascinating glimpses of the creative process, the marketing machine and the economics of Broadway. One of the juiciest threads involves tension between Jeff Marx, the co-composer of Avenue Q and Jeff Whitty, the book writer who was brought on board relatively late in the creative process.

It all ends happily, with Tony Awards for everyone, but the two did not get along, and it’s not pretty. Marx’s parents, by the way, turn out to be a highlight of the movie.

Director Berinstein includes several round-table discussions with New York theater critics, and this, to me, is a horror show. These nattering fools (save Charles Isherwood from the New York Times, who salvages a shred of dignity) make critics look like the lowest possible bottom feeders in the show business pool. Ouch.

Covering such a diverse assortment of shows, Berinstein ended up with more than 250 hours of video that had to be whittled down to 104 minutes.

“The season was a roller coaster with highly anticipated shows closing early and little shows coming out of nowhere to take Broadway by storm,” Berinstein says. “There was no way to predict where the Season was heading. Consequently, it was necessary to capture everything. Editing, as a result, was a massive and extremely difficult process. Narrowing down our primary storytelling to four musicals was excruciating. So many extraordinary moments are on the cutting room so to speak. I can’t wait until we assemble the DVD.”

Visit the movie’s official site at www.showbusiness-themovie.com.

Here’s the trailer from ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, followed by a clip featuring Idina Menzel of Wicked.

Tony red carpet, etc.

(all photos Associated Press)

“Musical theater rocks,” so said Duncan Sheik with a sly smile and a twinkle in his award-drunk eyes during Sunday’s Tony Awards.

Here’s Sheik on the red carpet before the event.

That’s the smile of someone who knows he’s going to win two Tonys (for best score and orchestration for Spring Awakening.

Another gorgeous red carpet arrival was best actess in a musical nominee Audra McDonald (110 in the Shade), who would not go on to win her fifth Tony.

But she would go on to electrify the audience (in Radio City Music Hall and at home) with the number “Raunchy” alongside co-star (and fellow nominee) John Cullum.

Returning to the red carpet, here’s the lovely Laura Bell Bundy, nominee for best actress in a musical for her role as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. To no one’s surprise, Bundy did not win, and Blonde failed to win in any category.

Looking like the Broadway royalty she is, Angela Lansbury, a best actress in a play nominee for Deuce, arrives. That’s Harry Connick Jr.’s daughter in the rear looking at Lansbury adoringly (“Daddy! It’s the voice of Mrs. Potts!). Lansbury lost to an ecstatic Julie White for The Little Dog Laughed, but she was a gracious ad hoc host.

Cutest married couple award on the red carpet goes to Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs. Neither was nominated but they should have received an award for looking so good.

I am thrilled that David Hyde Pierce, by all accounts a marvelous guy, was the surprise winner for best actor in a musical (for Curtains), but I was a little disappointed for Raul Esparza, who is electrifying as Bobby in the John Doyle revival of Company (which won best musical revival). On the red carpet he was clearly amused by the whole shebang.

Esparza’s performance of “Being Alive” during the awards was just a taste of how good he is in this show.

Another cutest couple award goes to a non-couple: presenters Cynthia Nixon and Felicity Huffman, who should definitely find a project to work on together.

Speaking of couples, hard to resist including a snap of Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. In Hollywood that’s called a baby bump. In New York, it’s called pregnancy.

In the realm of manufactured couples, here are the reality show castees Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, who will be starring on Broadway in the much-needed revival of Grease.

Adam Pascal: More than one song, glory

Here’s a sneak peek at my interview with Adam Pascal, who’s performing Oct. 27 and 28 at the Post Street Theatre in San Francisco (more info below).

Like any good blog item, there are bonus features that won’t make it into the newspaper.

Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel were friends in high school on Long Island. Well, not friends exactly, more like friendly. She was dating one of his good friends, and she was a year younger.

So what were the stars of Rent like in high school?

“In all honesty, I was cool and she was a nerd,” Pascal says on the phone from his Los Angeles home. “But she was a year younger. You know how that is in high school. She might as well have been 10 years younger.”

During those tender teenage years, Pascal was a heavy metal fan (“Judas Priest, that was my band!”) and had his very own band, which went through many names, including Wine and Vision. The band’s final name was Mute.

“I was outvoted three to one on that name,” Pascal says. And what was his choice? “Anything but Mute.”

Pascal’s rock ‘n’ roll career didn’t quite took off, but thanks to his “nerdy” friend Menzel, he got his big break.

She had already been cast in a raucous little off-Broadway musical about drag queens, artists and people with AIDS. It was called Rent, and her boyfriend at the time, mentioned to Pascal that the creative team was having trouble casting a rocker-type in the role of Roger.

If you saw Rent on Broadway or caught last year’s movie version, you know Pascal got the part and soared to fame largely on the power of his electrifying ballad, “One Song, Glory.”

Though Broadway fame beckoned _ Pascal would go on to play the Emcee in Cabaret during its long run and originate the role of Radames in Disney’s Aida _ Pascal still yearned for rock stardom.

“When Rent exploded, I thought for sure this was my springboard to a major label record deal,” he says. “But it didn’t happen for a lot of reasons. Frankly, I don’t think I had the chops to do it back then. I didn’t really know who I was as a singer or a songwriter.”
He has a better idea now.

On Wednesday (Oct. 25), Pascal turned 36, and tonight (Oct. 27) he plays the first of two solo concert gigs at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre. He’s on a concert tour that is taking him to college campuses, theaters and the odd YMCA.

The concert is just him on bass and guitar and a pianist. His repertoire comes from his two solo albums, “Model Prisoner” and “Civilian” (both on the Sh-K-Boom label), and from Broadway shows.

Of course he sings “One Song, Glory,” but he has re-imagined it as what he describes as a “haunting piano ballad with a different time signature.” He also throws in “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line, “Maria” from West Side Story and “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret.

“I wanted to experiment with taking Broadway tunes and drastically re-arranging them without changing their intent,” Pascal says. “A lot of times, taken out of context, musical theater material doesn’t work. I wanted to make the songs more palatable.”

Assuming the movie of Rent would be a big hit and offers would pour in, Pascal and his wife, Cybele, and their two sons, Lennon Jay, 5, and Montgomery Lovell, 3, moved to Los Angeles.

The offers didn’t pour in.

“If I didn’t have music in my life…” Pascal says, then pauses for thought. “If I was out here just trying to be an actor, I’d kill myself. It’s brutal. I feel like every audition I go to I’m at an International Male catalog call with all these super-buffed-up, super-handsome male model-looking guys. You want to be taken seriously as an actor and be judged on your talent, but that’s not what it’s about.”

But Pascal does have his music _ and his family _ and he’s doing all right.

Reflecting on his birthday, Pascal says: “I’m much, sort of, smarter and more adept at what I do than I was 10 years ago. Music is a young person’s business, but it didn’t happen for me as a young person. It’s happening to me now. It took whatever my life experiences have been for the last 10 years to acquire the skills I need to do this well. I feel I have more of those skills to be a better musician, lyricist, player, whatever. I’m finally coming into my own.”

If you’re interested in knowing what Pascal is listening to these days (mostly at the gym): he just downloaded the Scissor Sisters’ latest, “Ta Da,” OK Go’s latest and a group called She Wants Revenge.

For Pascal neophytes, if you’d like to sample him at his best, of course download “One Song, Glory” from Rent. Pascal himself recommends the following three tracks from his solo work: “I’m with You” and “The Ringing in My Ear” from “Civilian” and “Undiscovered” from “Model Prisoner.”

I’d like to add Pascal’s excellent recording of “I Got Life” from the benefit recording of Hair on the Sh-K-Boom label.

Adam Pascal’s concerts are at 8 p.m. Oct. 27 and 28 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35 to $85. Call (415) 771-6900 or visit www.poststreetheatre.com for information.