If/Then, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt; directed by Michael Greif; produced by the Hollywood Pantages: seen December 10, 2015.
Where would our life be if we made different choices? This concept is not new – it’s the backbone of an entire subgenre of science fiction, alternate or parallel universes. The various choices – sometimes seemingly unimportant at the time – that leads us to this moment is a very philosophical concept. Heck – the entire concept of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books is based on how much a story can change based on one single decision.
If/Then is the story of newly divorced Elizabeth (Idina Menzel, who reprises her Tony-nominated role) meeting up with friends in a park in Brooklyn. Should she become “Beth”, following her old friend/boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) and go the ‘safe’ route of making connections with her professional life as an urban planner? Or should she be “Liz”, joining up with new friend Kate (LaChanze), a lesbian kindergarten teacher who is all about new experiences? The rest of the musical then follows how each of these choices play out.
My biggest issue with the play is that the plot is actually very similar to the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors – to the point where I wondered if that was the influence of the musical. While admittedly, I’m deeply into this kind of story and so admit that it’s hard to do something ‘new’ with the idea, I found the story itself only somewhat engaging as a result. There were times it was hard to tell whether we were following Liz’s story or Beth’s, and despite going down different routes, the characters pretty much stayed consistent between alternate timelines. It doesn’t help that Lucas seems to be an expy of Rapp’s “Mark” from Rent, making his interactions with Menzel have an unintentional humor to it.
Of course, the best reason for watching this was seeing Menzel (and Rapp, for that matter) in person. Even if this was the worst musical in the world, the fact that my own set of decisions led to the ability for me to actually see this performance made me want to praise it. As I said on Facebook that night, had you told me five years ago that I’d have a chance to see her on stage, I’d have given you the side-eye. And Menzel does an excellent job, as expected.
However, the non-musical parts seem to be just placeholders to get to the next song, and the songs themselves seem, well, a little weak – especially with a powerhouse like Menzel to sing them. Only one (“Always Starting Over”, linked below – but head’s up, it’s the next to the last song) really seemed to do right by Menzel and her powerful pipes. I explained my reaction to a non-theatre co-worker who’s into sports as seeing his favorite baseball player in a mediocre game: yes, it’s great to have seen her live and I will forever be grateful to the box office person who – without me saying anything – upgraded our nosebleed seats to ones that were literally four rows away from the front of the stage. But the show itself felt like an average musical. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it also wasn’t one of those shows (like Wicked) which made me want to turn around and see it again.
Should you go see it? If you’re a fan of Menzel or Rapp, then definitely check it out. If you’re in Los Angeles, it plays at the Pantages until January 3. For more information, visit the Pantages’ website.