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Friday, December 11, 2015

F3Stage: Idina Menzel lets it all go & defies gravity in If/Then

Film Flam Flummox


While If/Then is one of the increasingly rare new musical productions in recent Broadway seasons to not be adapted from a previous media property--or, to be more specific, a movie--the latest collaboration between the award-winning Next to Normal creatives of composer Tom Kitt, lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey, and director Michael Greif more than recalls a film: the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow starrer Sliding Doors, which like this show follows the two divergent routes a woman's life can take based on differing outcomes of a seemingly small but overall life-altering incident. Unlike in that film, however, the life of If/Then's heroine Elizabeth Vaughan splinters into parallel paths during one pivotal visit to New York's Madison Square Park not through a chance occurrence but her own choice.


Idina Menzel as Elizabeth Vaughan
and the full cast of If/Then
in the original Broadway production
(photo by Joan Marcus)

The piece's success, particularly in the original 2014-2015 Broadway production and now the First National Tour currently playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, owes mostly to conscious choice, with a touch of good fortune as a magical finishing touch. From the earliest stages of the creative process, Kitt, Yorkey, and Greif worked with Tony Award-winning actress Idina Menzel to develop the role of Elizabeth--or, rather, roles of "Liz" and "Beth," as the two versions of Elizabeth are verbally differentiated following the scene- and scenario-setting opening number, appropriately titled "What If?" And from her casual opening utterance of "Hey, it's me," the part(s) accordingly fits Menzel as snugly and comfortably as a glove, and she for the entire piece. Setting aside the issue of either vocal or acting chops, there's something to be said for the value of sheer force of charisma in piloting a production, especially given this one's ambitious storytelling hook of depicting two distinct versions of the same character's story simultaneously. Menzel's formidable star presence and innate likability consistently keeps both hemispheres of Elizabeth and those in her orbit(s) compelling and engaging.

That's no small accomplishment, considering that, taken individually, the two strands of the If/Then double helix are fairly thin. The "Liz" course begins when she, freshly moved back to the Big Apple focused on establishing her own life and asserting her own identity after 12 years of wedded non-bliss in Phoenix, elects to have an extended stay in the park with new neighbor Kate (LaChanze). This simple choice leads to her chance meeting with Josh (James Snyder), an Army doctor just returning from his second tour of duty. All manner of rom-com give-and-take thus ensues, as the easygoing Josh and the more guarded and by-the-book Liz collide but strike undeniable sparks that soon even she can neither deny nor resist. Instead of staying in the park with Kate, "Beth" accompanies her college friend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) on a protest he's organizing against a development project, and this path ironically puts her on the fast track on her long-coveted career as an urban planner, with very little time or interest in any affairs of the heart, despite her unhealthy attraction to her married boss Stephen (Daren A. Herbert) or the efforts of the not-so-secretly pining Lucas.


Idina Menzel as Liz; James Snyder as Josh
in the original Broadway production
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Neither of those storylines are terribly original or go in any terribly surprising directions in the micro sense, nor are they in the more macro thematic concern of the contrast between a woman choosing either love or a career. But the creativity and richness of If/Then comes in all levels of its execution, starting with Yorkey's book, which compensates for what it may lack in plot originality in engaging characterization. Menzel's early involvement in the creative process is evident, with the author giving the star plenty of opportunity to showcase the appealingly quirky sense of humor she's long shown in interviews and in concerts, whether in some crackling one-liners (delivered with perfect, deadpan precision by Menzel) or some narratively organic comic situations, namely in one comedic number whose title I dare not spoil here. To have Elizabeth's two best friends be a sassy lesbian (Kate) and a bisexual social activist (Lucas) seems cliché, but Yorkey is generous to them beyond their functions as sounding boards (and, in former's case, comic relief). Kate's own love story with Anne (Janine DiVita) is adequately developed in both timelines, but the treatment of Lucas is even more impressive. His sexuality is admirably treated without comment, with him falling into a relationship with Josh's best friend David (Marc Delacruz) on the Liz side, while being more intimately involved (in every sense) to the main action, to deeply affecting consequences, on the Beth side. Yorkey is, especially in the second act, ultimately a bit too generous to Kate and Lucas, for her duet with Anne and his with David, while certainly pleasant, stall the overall dramatic momentum heading into the climax.

But those two numbers are an exception to Kitt and Yorkey's score, which in form and function reinforce the idea of both its New York City setting, its inhabitants, and the world in general constantly in motion and always propelling forward toward a multitude of new configurations. While there are a couple of knockout numbers that can well stand on their own outside of the show (more on those later), they hold their maximum impact tied in their specific contexts, and despite the variations in sound that naturally come with the given dramatic moment, Kitt makes the musical whole hang together with a consistent, appealing light pop sound. Similarly modern-feeling but not overwhelmingly so, and very effectively reinforcing the idea of perpetual motion and shifting possibilities is Mark Wendland's set design, which makes versatile and visually striking, but unobtrusive, use of ever-shifting scaffolding, wooden frames, and a turntable. In what is reportedly a deviation from the Broadway design, a projection screen, notably for the top half of the proscenium frame, has been added for the tour, and it proves to be a savvy alteration for the road, mostly used to project maps of NYC that pinpoint the exact locations of each scene. The trickiest and most important shifts in "location," of course, are between the Liz and Beth timelines, and Greif makes sure only the most dim and inattentive viewer will not be able to follow the transitions, most obviously having Liz wear glasses and Beth not, but also having lighting designer Kenneth Posner code the Liz side with a red wash and Beth with blue. Spelled out in text this sounds a bit cumbersome and maybe even heavy handed, but in practice it plays out with rather graceful fludity, and Kitt, Yorkey, and Greif have a lot of fun with the juggling act of dual realities, such as having Beth going to bed with one guy and then literally seconds later shift to Liz waking with another.

Scenes like that, and the entire concept of If/Then, may thus sound like one slickly pulled off gimmick concerned more with cleverness than its characters, but the production never once loses sight of the beating, bleeding heart thanks to the actors. In an extremely rare case for a touring company, not only Menzel but LaChanze, Snyder, and her fellow Rent stage and screen alum Rapp are retained from the original Broadway cast, and their collective comfort in the roles and chemistry with each other immeasurably adds to the audience investment. More crucially, though, the also blend well with the newer principal members of the company such as DiVita, Delacruz, and Herbert, who more than pull their own weight. Perhaps the unsung hero of the entire production is Rapp. Befitting the character of Lucas, especially in the Beth storyline, his contribution is reliably rock solid but all too easily taken for granted, best epitomized by his quietly heartbreaking work in the act two Beth duet "Some Other Me" and most especially his startling act one solo "You Don't Need to Love Me," whose understated delivery is in inverse proportion to its emotional wallop.


Idina Menzel as Beth; Anthony Rapp as Lucas
in the original Broadway production
(photo by Joan Marcus)

Naturally, though, no wallop matches that delivered by its above-the-title leading lady, who even after a 20-year career on the boards manages to give a truly revelatory performance. By now Menzel's explosive vocal firepower is very familiar, and she doesn't disappoint in that department, but the restraint and nuance of her voice and overall performance initially takes one aback, particularly in act one. The skill with which she navigates and delineates the subtle yet distinct shades in expression, physicality, and vocal delivery that distinguish Liz from Beth and vice versa is easy to miss; in fact, at intermission I overheard another in the press rows somewhat dismissively declare that she's "talented, but with a limited acting range." But her act two work rather definitively silences any and all doubt that in addition to being a world class vocalist, she's also one forceful dramatic talent. The best example of this for me comes not with the justly show-stopping 11-o'clock number "Always Starting Over," which delivers all the full throttle über-power-ballad histrionics one expects and craves from a Menzel starring vehicle. Rather, the definitive moment occurs in an earlier, equally emotive act two number, "I Hate You," specifically the raw, bitterly venomous yet vulnerable and wounded ferocity with which she spits out the line "I loved you." It's as fearless, emotionally naked, and brutally, almost uncomfortably intimate and honest moment as anyone can find in all of musical theater--and a testament to how the singular gifts of a star at the top of her game can achieve an emotional liftoff that elevates an entire production to a certain gravity-defying transcendence and resonance.


Idina Menzel as Beth and Liz
in the original Broadway production
(photo by Joan Marcus)

The First National Tour production of If/Then is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Sunday, January 3, then moves on to other cities throughout 2016. Watch the cast's Hollywood opening night curtain call here.

Buy the If/Then original Broadway cast album CD here.
Buy the If/Then original Broadway cast album MP3 here.
Buy the If/Then original Broadway cast album vinyl LP here.
Buy the If/Then sheet music here.



(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre )

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