Tour Theater Review: IF/THEN (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on December 12, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

WHAT/EVER

Saved from total disregard by a libretto that occasionally manages to engage with humor and knowingness, this brave attempt to examine the subject of fate versus choice utterly fails to cohere into a moving experience. Composer/lyricist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt, the creators of Next to Normal, use parallel time-lines to explore the different paths that a modern New York woman’s life would take, depending on whether she chooses love or career—a conceit similar to the film Sliding Doors, a masterpiece compared to this head-scratcher, now in the nascency of its national tour.

If/Then Richard Rodgers Theatre

Some may enjoy trying to piece together the labyrinthine narrative of If/Then, but I found this musical took far too much effort to keep up with. In addition, the lead character Elizabeth and her many New York-centric friends, co-workers, and lovers are either unlikeable, flavorless, annoying, or dispensable to the plot. Don’t get me wrong: There is some high-quality work in the libretto, but cheap shots, topical references, and some one-dimensional characters show immaturity on the part of Mr. Yorkey.

If/ThenNational Theatre

It’s difficult to understand if Elizabeth exists in two different worlds or if only one is real and the other is in her head or if it’s a magical Musical Comedy Brigadoon world where she really does flip-flop between two realities. The ending seemed to answer those questions, but then I heard a couple disagreeing about what actually happened. The first act has a number called “What the Fuck?”, but there should have been an eleven o’clock number called “Who Gives a Fuck?”

If/Then Richard Rodgers TheatreDirector Michael Greif attempts to distinguish the concurrent stories of Elizabeth (one as Liz, the other as Beth) with little cues such as changing eyeglasses and lighting, yet her costume remained the same. Nothing helps either way, because both Liz and Beth are prototypes of those neurotic, whiny, overanalyzing women that male comedians refer to. (At one point during the show, I thought, “Can we not talk about talking about it?”) Remarkably, this woman, who has fled Arizona (the butt of many jokes) and a loveless marriage to start over in NYC, manages five minutes later to have friends, lovers, and great jobs thrown at her. She attracts gorgeous men, smart men, and employed men (most of whom are charmingly neurotic), yet she comes across as just an entitled narcissist. This is why it never makes sense that the man who aggressively pursues her is not only kind, understanding, compassionate, and patient, but he’s ridiculously hot and a doctor and active military (and bland as played by James Snyder).

If/Then Richard Rodgers Theatre

The libretto’s addlepated construction will leave you in the dark, but the lopsided political statements are clear and concise: Marriage. Affairs. Career. Pregnancy. Abortion. Adoption. Housing activism. The futility of war. Unwed motherhood. A gay couple. Another gay couple. An interracial couple. Another interracial couple. Yet another interracial couple. Toss in some insults about the flag-stitching Betsy Ross (I know, what a bitch, right?), and I’m surprised there wasn’t a song called “Labia and Liberalism.”

If/Then Richard Rodgers Theatre

Equally stultifying is the paucity of on-stage chemistry, especially given that most of the Broadway cast remains intact. Weirdest casting of all: Anthony Rapp. Over 20 years since his Rent debut, and he’s still playing the same underdog activist. It’s OK that his performing style is identical down to the fingertips, but he’s hardly a romantic lead; here, he’s a bisexual who attracts best friend Liz (or is it Beth? I don’t remember) and a young hot gay tolerant doctor. (That’s two hot doctors in one musical.) Again: “What the Fuck?”

If/ThenRichard Rodgers Theatre

Forget the fact that it opened on Broadway with a perplexing plot, forgettable tunes, and a protagonist for whom we have no sympathy, If/Then defied decidedly mixed reviews, and quite a few pans, to become a Broadway success—no doubt propelled by the tuner’s star, Idina Menzel, she of Rent, Wicked, and Frozen (“Let It Go”) fame. But that’s the Biz. Don’t forget that Ethel Merman had the power to keep some clunkers on the boards for hundreds of performances. The difference in Merm’s time was that when one of these critical (never financial) flops closed, they stayed closed. The afterlife for these shows, such as Happy Hunting (1957), can be found on original cast albums and one-night-only staged concert-readings. And even when the songs in Merm’s shows didn’t knock ‘em out of the park—as with Something For the Boys (1943)—they still had something that today’s repetitious, profane, Glee-like, overrated, insipid, Broadway Pop sorely needs: Cole Porter. If any show needed a catchy melody or soaring ballad to break up the loopy construction, it’s If/Then.

If/ThenRichard Rodgers Theatre

But this is America, 2015, when fame rules, thereby perpetuating mediocrity almost every time. Thus, trends, fads, shows (and even some people) are kept alive far longer than they should be. Once Menzel bows out after the first few cities of If/Then’s national tour (Jan. 24, 2016, to be precise) this turkey will keep gobbling across the land without the belter, who by the way has an odd vocal technique and strange vowel sounds: At times on opening night in Los Angeles, she had a weird and forced nasally country twang that made her sound like a shrieking, unintelligible, pitchy drag queen imitating a white Whitney Houston. AND SHE’S MIKED!! Menzel’s co-star LaChanze belts, too, but with a much better voice; she would have been a far superior casting choice for Elizabeth. Frankly, as much as Menzel does fine work as an actress here, her meteoric rise in regards to singing completely mystifies me.

In the You Can’t Fool An Audience Department: At first sight of Menzel, the crowd roared like a 1-Ton TNT Bomb, but collectively sounded like a lone firecracker at curtain call.

If/Then National Theatre

photos of Broadway production by Joan Marcus

If/Then
seen at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre
national tour continues through August, 2016
for cities and dates, visit If/Then

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Fred December 19, 2015 at 10:44 am

I saw If/Then last night and I totally agree with your review and more so. I liked your title “What/Ever”. One could joke “If you go/Then it’s your fault”.

The script did not set up a story and a character you could:
#1 care about
#2 follow.

I’m still confused as to what was going on in that show, but can you explain what happened at the end? Was this all in her imagination? Was this all presented to us as a “what if”? I know the premise is supposed to be about the paths we choose — career or love — but the book did little to develop that premise or guide you as to what was going on.

I didn’t care about Elizabeth/Liz/Beth because her stories did not have any compelling conflicts or strong development. I finally caught on to the glasses and color theme, but still you couldn’t follow what was going on. And though both stories taken on their own are pretty weak, the two stories intertwined may indeed be constantly fighting each other and cancelling out any development or involvement one could have.

And is it me or did Idina Menzel seem to be walking through most of the show, mush-mouthing the lyrics, and adding a lot of notes that go all over the place? (Granted, we were sitting in the front, so we couldn’t hear many of the actors well because the speakers are designed to project their voices way past us.) I like Menzel, but I was underwhelmed by her performance. Yes, she rose to the task towards the end but up till then – was she holding back? Was she trying to portray someone thinking seriously about every step of her life and therefore inward at times? Or was she just going through the motions? Perhaps all of the above. All the other leads — LaChanze, in particular — were “present” and crisp on stage (although granted Rapp was playing the same ol’ role and Snyder was, as one reviewer put it, a golden retriever: pretty and likeable but bland.

And I couldn’t help thinking all the way through: What if Jason Robert Brown or William Finn had written this? Then you might have something. Kitt’s songs were easy and interchangeable, with those “just banged out” kind of melodies, but with a beat.

Interestingly enough, I played the Original Cast CD once and knew how bland and characterless the score was. Once was enough.

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Tony Frankel December 19, 2015 at 11:12 am

Thanks, Fred.

When I said “The ending seemed to answer those questions,” I believed at the end that both stories occurred in her head — that old cop-out: “It was only a dream.” Which really infuriated me. But then a few friends had other interpretations: One story was real, the other wasn’t, etc. Ultimately, it gave me a blistering headache trying to figure out anything here. I’m still trying to figure out why audiences continue to support this dreck.

Menzel had some surprisingly lovely moments towards the end, but I felt like she was walking through the songs. My theater companion was convinced she had a cold. Since you saw it 9 days after I did, Fred, I can only assume her heart is not in this show. Besides, Menzel is no star. She doesn’t have the “It” factor, and I don’t see a lot of distinction or originality — even when I saw her in Wicked, Rent, Aida, and the 21st-anniversary concert of Chess. But her sonic-boom pipes have gotten her far.

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Wendy December 20, 2015 at 2:13 pm

LOVE the title of your review, both for its wit and encapsulation of the feelings the show inspired (or not, as the case may be.)

I didn’t hate the show, but do agree it falls far short of what SHOULD be expected of a production with its level of acclaim and price tag. My mother, who I saw the show with, hated it with a passion, and almost died laughing when I told her the title of your review. She couldn’t follow the switches of plot line at all and was bored stiff for the duration.

I could follow it, and found Menzel’s voice to up to par, but, while her singing didn’t offend, her talking, talking, talking, as you mentioned, did. The characters, plot, score and choreography were mostly insipid and uninspired. Blah, blah, love, blah, blah career, blah, blah, commentary on society. I giggled a few times, and did not want to commit hara-kiri, but was not terribly impressed either. I did expect more from a show with a good portion of its Broadway cast. My not being totally irked is probably because I’m more of your basic, mass market, theater goer who loves musicals, so I’m not as easily offended by the mediocre. 😉

Basically, my feelings about the show: If you don’t see it – Then you’re not missing much.

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JMJr December 30, 2015 at 6:47 am

WHO/WHY… who thought this show was a good idea and why did it ever get made?!?!? A mind-numbing insipid 3 hours of theater.

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