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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The way librettist Brian Yorkey makes this happen is by lickety-splitting Elizabeth into Liz and Beth. Both these split-offs of the all-in-one Elizabeth are still smart, 39-years-olds with an under-utilized Ph.D. in urban planning. Liz is the impulsive romantic one who's drawn to love and babies. Beth is the pragmatic and more career focused one.
For the all-in-one Elizabeth, the end of a marriage in Tuscon means returning to New York to start over. The choices made by her Liz and Beth are influenced by her rekindled friendships with her college chum, the idealistic housing activist Lucas (Adam Rapp) and with kindergarten teacher Kate (La Chanze), her former neighbor.
Yorkey, like Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, lets Elizabeth's Liz and Beth personas experience the love-marriage-baby choice and the successful career path. The fact that he has the parallel stories play out simultaneously can be mighty confusing for the audience. It also calls for willingness to buy into the fairy tale aspects of both stories: Even with a high-ranking network connection, how likely is it for a woman whose resume has a twelve year blank in terms of an actual job as an urban planner to be okayed for a high powered city government job? And how likely is it for a 39-year-old woman who's never been pregnant to conceive after a one-night stand?
The split personality business is likely to be more readily understood by anyone who saw Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's ground breaking Next to Normal which also had as its central character trying to juggle between normalcy and schizophrenia. Still, it will take a star to make this often frustratingly hard to follow and less emotionally engaging dual plot line to keep filling the seats of a large Broadway house like the Richard Rodgers.
And a star is certainly what Indina Menzel is. From the moment she comes on stage and announces "Hello, it's me," she has her many fans with her. Her performance is potent enough to make If/Then soar above the plot's who/cares aspects.
Kitt has certainly written Menzel plenty of power ballads to which to apply her big, belting pipes. Perhaps a few TOO many since they tend to sound rather repetitious, which also applies to the lyrics. And boy oh boy, does she belt them out with amazing energy and emotional heft.
Menzel is well supported with fine acting and singing by Elizabeth's pals — Anthony Rapp (her colleague in her first Broadway show, Rent) and the delightfully peppy La Chanze. The other six roles are also splendidly acted and sung, with James Snyder as Liz's love interest Josh, a real discovery.
Director Michael Greif (also Next to Normal's director) and his crafts team do their utmost to help audiences get the transitions between the Liz/Beth stories. But while the result is a slick, handsome production, the delineating devices fail to clarify the back and forth segues: glasses on for Liz, off for Beth. . .color coded lighting by Kenneth Posner. . . a mirrored ceiling by set designer Mark Wendland to echo the split view of Elizabeth's lives (probably not seen in the upper regions of the theater). Larry Keigwin's choreography does little more than fill up the stage with movement.
Despite all the what ifs that come to mind —what if the plot wasn't so gimmicky and confusing? . . .What if Yorkey didn't insist on spending too much plot time with the secondary characters' romances and allowed things to play out in a brisker two hours? But hats off anyway to Yorkey and company. In a Broadway season dominated by musicals relying on familiar movies, this gifted team has once again risked a new story and score. Ultimately, they do manage to bring Elizabeth's rather pedestrian dual journey to a heart tugging finale.
And with Indina letting go (shades of her hit song in Disney's Frozen) with everything she's got, If/Then, like Wicked, may prove to be critic proof.