Review: If/Then (Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York)

If/Then, the latest show from Next to Normal duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is arguably one of the more complicated musicals to emerge on Broadway this year. Centred around city planner Elizabeth, it asks the question whether we make up our own destiny or whether we’re all just at the hands of fate.

Beginning in the aftermath of a messy break-up, we meet Elizabeth (played by Wicked and Frozen star Idina Menzel) in a New York park. The premise is set straightaway during the opening number ‘What If’, with Elizabeth having to make a choice between going to a rally with her old flame Lucas (Anthony Rapp) or to get coffee with new acquaintance Kate (LaChanze).

And so begins the next couple of hours, where we jump back and forth between the two lives. In one, Elizabeth finds the perfect job but ends up making some bad choices along the way; in the other, she meets her soul mate Josh (James Snyder) and has a child, only for tragedy to strike when he gets called back into the army.

I’d be lying if I said that for the entire time it’s clear whose life we are watching. Jumping between the two versions of Elizabeth (handily renamed Liz and Beth five minutes in; one with glasses and one without) the narrative can get confusing at times, but never for long. A huge amount is crammed into the 2 hr 35 min running time – arguably too much – but, generally, it’s clear which storylines relate to each half of Elizabeth. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner has also employed a tactic of using red and blue lights to represent each story which helps no end – and we’ll choose to overlook the ambiguous purple that crops up every so often.

The performances are almost unanimously great. Menzel, who has top billing, is the real focus though, and she’s risen to the challenge. While the Superman-like approach of switching glasses on and off helps, both Liz and Beth are played with enough distinction that I found myself disgusted with one and genuinely upset for the other. And I’m more than willing to admit that by half way through act two after disaster strikes I was (like many in the Richard Rodgers) moved to tears.

The supporting cast are also strong. LaChanze shines (as always) as the vastly-underused best friend, adding much needed comedy at a couple of key moments throughout, and it would be hard not to swoon over James Snyder’s oh-so-dashing performance as Elizabeth’s husband (although there were a time I could have quite easily told him to grow a pair).

My only real issue was with Rapp, who seems to be playing Mark from Rent once again. For the most part, that fits the bill perfectly, but the character just came across as pathetic as the story progresses.

Musically, this could easily become of my favourite scores of recent years. While there are a number of nice ballads, it’s the ensemble pieces that really stood out. The show as a whole focuses on giving the city of New York and the people within it individual voices, rather than acting as a single entity. The music helps bring those voices out by layering them up to create some stunning moments – see ‘A Map of New York’ for a great example of this.

Elsewhere in the score, look to LaChanze’s ‘It’s a sign’ near the beginning of act one for a witty and uplifting number that takes place on a New York Subway train (oh hello there, memories of Rent…), and Menzel’s eleven o’clock number ‘Always Starting Over’ which is incredibly touching following the events that precede it. Special mention also has to go to ‘Love While You Can’ which, with some incredible high notes by Kate’s girlfriend/wife Anne (Jen Colella), never fails to amaze.

In the set department there’s a fantastic use of a revolve here by the designer Mark Wendland. So subtle that it was barely noticeable; at times used to help distinguish between the two stories, but also to add drama during key moments such as the controversial airplane scene.

For the most part though, the scenic design was relatively simple, but it worked, with the cast bringing on parts of a room or tables and chairs to hint at locations and support the story rather than perfectly recreate them. In fact, aside from a large New York-style balcony and fire escape (which doubles as the show’s curtain – see below), a large mirror that looms over proceedings to highlight LED lights embedded in the floor (a little on the pointless side, in my humble opinion) and a border of trees around edge of the stage, there’s not a lot going on.

Verdict: ★★★★☆

There are some great performances from the leads here and the story of If/Then (just about) manages to pull off a very difficult concept without getting too confused. Musically and visually there are some impressive moments, but these aren’t consistent throughout.

And the seat…

Orchestra, row O, seat 19. While the view was a little off centre, the seat’s position can’t be faulted. Completely uninterrupted sight lines (seriously, why haven’t more theatres got rakes like this in the stalls?!) and with a nice overview of the whole stage, it was a great place to take everything in.

Richard Rodgers Theatre Seat O19

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