If/Then – National Theater

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I saw If/Then less than a week before it’s official opening date here in Washington, DC and while there seems to be the basis of an interesting musical there still needs some work to be done to make it more than just another somewhat enjoyable show.  The story centers around Idina Menzel’s character, Elizabeth, returning to New York in her late 30’s after getting a divorce in Phoenix.  She sets up a meeting with her long time bisexual college friend/boyfriend Lucas, played by Anthony Rapp, and her new lesbian next door neighbor Kate, played by LaChanze, in Madison Square Park in New York.  When she arrives she makes a fateful decision on whether to go with Kate to check out the guy playing guitar in the park, or with Lucas to his housing activitist friends.  Here the show splits and we go on a nearly 3 hour ride through both storylines and see how things play out for Elizabeth and company.  In one scenario she ends up with an okay job, but meets the great guy.  In the other scenario she gets the great job and has a struggling personal life.  The show adeptly handles the different time lines causing only small moments of confusion as to what storyline you are following, with some of those moments being on purpose.  Although I will admit my wife did overhear the elderly people next to us during intermission confused because they had not grasped that there were two distinct storylines playing out before our eyes.  I blame that on the theatergoers and not the actors or story though, because it was fairly evident that was what was going on. 

One of my biggest complaints of the first act of the show, which really seemed to be putting together a nice story and set up for the second act, was the decision to not have one full on song be performed in the entire act.  Each song was interspersed with acting plot points and a return to the song several times over.  While I understand and can appreciate songs like this as plot devices in this instance it just repeatedly cut off the momentum of the song for an unnecessary reset and really did no justice to the talents of the cast and their voices.  Just as momentum was building for the actor or actress to really soar within the song it would abruptly stop, only to reset and continue with a new build-up after the acting portion was complete. 

I’d also note, as the show was still in previews there was no song list in the playbill, so the song titles aren’t easily accessible via memory a couple of days later.  The first act was fairly lighthearted, with numerous laugh out loud moments, including Idina Menzel’s song “What the fuck” as she is lamenting the relationship she is in, in both timelines.  The final song of the first act takes place on the same day, Elizabeth’s (Beth or Liz, depending on the timeline you are in) 40th birthday and the parallel events that are going at her party in both timelines.  As the final song of the first act it was a bit underwhelming from a song perspective, but definitely not from a story perspective.  While it may be tough to equal the closing moments of Wicked or any number of other Broadway musicals, it just didn’t have that same large moment as one would expect.

As for the second act, while you definitely got some songs that were just performed from start to finish, including a crowd pleasing solo from Menzel late in the show.  Where not unexpectedly she shone and took the show to places it had not reached before with respect to the songs.  Unfortunately, the show falls apart a bit in the second act.  For a show that was pretty light hearted in the first act, it turned to pretty dark storylines in the second act.  It took Liz/Beth back on her life rollercoaster before the end of the show, before it all comes together at the end for the conclusion.  Part of the problem was that the storyline of Beth, the version that gets the career early on, was not explored very well.  I am intentionally remaining vague as to what the catastrophe is, but the aftermath and the  2 plus year time jump until we see Beth again is somewhat jarring.   Especially as the show was fairly lighthearted during the first act.  Conversely, the Liz storyline tragedy plays out fairly predictably, over the course of one song, which I  guess I will call “I love you, I hate you”.  But the core of this show is light hearted and uplifting and has an ending that is pretty predictable for both Liz and Beth.

I found If/Then to be a pleasant experience and enjoyable.  Some catchy songs, but none that necessarily stick with you for days on end.  Of course, that could change if a cast recording ever gets released.  But there did seem to be something lacking in the second act of the show story-wise and the time you put in during the first act for the big payoff seemed lost and soured the whole production a bit.  I walked out thinking that the show would have almost played better as a drama than a musical, or at least it felt that way as the story so overwhelmed the songs.  Including the performance of those songs throughout the show, because the songs generally took second fiddle to the story except for a few songs during the second act where the actors truly shined in using their vocals to tell the story.  They clearly had the ability to do it, but the script just didn’t permit them to reach the heights they were truly capable of.  

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