Michael L. Quintos
If there was ever any doubt of Tony Award winner Idina Menzel's proven star status, such silly thinking evaporated in a flash a mere second into the start of IF/THEN's opening night performance at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre last Wednesday evening. Lit by a single spotlight as she is perched up high in a raised catwalk on a darkened stage, she paused for quite a while as the theater loudly erupted in a seemingly unending, rapturous, thunderous applause. It was a thrilling rock star moment—one of several, actually—that welcomed the once and future Adele Dazeem to this Los Angeles landmark.
One thing is for sure: Menzel is a powerfully-gifted musical theater actress and singer, with an enviable instrument that is punctuated with an unmistakable, Broadway-honed musicality that purposely fires on all cylinders in this obvious star vehicle. She sings and acts with such deeply felt ferocity and great comedic timing that it's hard to keep your eyes (and ears) off of her throughout the show. And... that voice—my goodness, that voice! It really is a distinctive one that has certainly contributed to her becoming one of Broadway's most celebrated super-divas.
Of course, it really helps, too, that the music in IF/THEN—filled with equal parts amusing quirkiness, reflective outbursts, and emotional melodrama by NEXT TO NORMAL's Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey—seems custom-curated to Menzel's strengths, including the expected presence of a rousing, anthemic 11 o'clock number (the memorable power ballad "Always Starting Over") that will have fans and audience members weeping and squealing with delight. Anyone who has ever seen or heard Menzel perform live, whether on Broadway or in concert (or even just by ear as Queen Elsa in Disney's hit animated musical Frozen) can certainly testify that she is one incredibly talented human being.
So it's no stretch then to say that her mere existence in this very same role she herself originated in the original Broadway production seems, above everything else, to be the immediate draw to the recently launched national tour of IF/THEN, the parallel-lives Broadway musical drama now on stage at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for a four (!) week sit-down engagement through January 3, 2016. But here's something even more enticing: also joining her on the road to reprise their previous roles from the Broadway production are her former co-stars James Snyder, Anthony Rapp, and Tony Award winner LaChanze (it's worth noting, though, that Menzel, LaChanze, and Snyder will only stay with the touring production through its Orange County stop at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts scheduled January 19-24). Now that's a must-see event in itself.
Reprising her Tony-nominated work briefly for the tour, Menzel does a marvelous job singing and acting two distinct sides (or, rather, "paths") of one person. Menzel plays the show's central character Elizabeth, a smart, savvy, slightly neurotic gal longing for a fresh start. When the modern day musical begins, Elizabeth—an urban planner by trade who's nearing 40 years old—has just moved back to New York City to the welcoming embrace of her once close pals Kate (a radiant LaChanze), a brazen kindergarten teacher, and Lucas (Menzel's RENT co-star Anthony Rapp, still in fine voice), a community organizer with a penchant for political activism.
As part of her new lease on life in the Big Apple, both Kate and Lucas—who, funny enough, can't seem to stand each other—separately urge their mutual friend Elizabeth to also reinvent her identity, so to speak. In a city like New York City, such a request to craft a new persona to mark a restart doesn't seem that farfetched.
Kate, who is naturally (and unapologetically) outspoken and very direct, urges Elizabeth to approach her life choices with a similarly brazen gusto, and to start going by her old nickname "Liz" again. Meanwhile Lucas suggests that she start referring to herself again as "Beth" the same professional-sounding nickname she went by in college to jumpstart her career prospects.
And so begins the musical's Sliding Doors-esque split-storyline that pits the forces of inescapable fate with the consequences of personal choices, a running thematic conflict that lets us witness two separate courses that Elizabeth's life might follow, answering the overarching question of 'if this... then what?' Does one seemingly minute decision truly have drastic effects on a person's entire life?
This complex story—written by librettist/lyricist Yorkey that accompanies composer Kitt's pleasant melodies—posits a very interesting thesis within its construct: that life (at least for Elizabeth, in this case) tips the scale in favor of either a fulfilling career or a fulfilling relationship—but never a truly equal balance between the two (well, at least on the onset). The choices that "Liz" and "Beth" each make constantly determine the possibility for this balance.
Thus, for the bespectacled "Liz," her bolder new persona peppered with braver choices (with some prodding from Kate, of course) help convince her to ignore a phone call and instead instigate a flirtation with a handsome stranger she has multiple chance meetings with named Josh (a riveting, extremely likable James Snyder), a military doctor just back from serving in the war in the Middle East. At first, Liz is hesitant in starting a relationship with Josh, but as time passes their romance intensifies, culminating in their marriage and, later, the raising of children. But before all that transpires, Liz eventually calls back his friend Stephen (Daren A. Herbert) who was originally calling to offer her his old deputy position at the city planner's office, but instead helps her get a much more meager teaching position. Along the way, Lucas is also introduced to Josh's cute best friend David (Marc Delacruz), and the two of them, surprisingly, fall for each other as well.
Meanwhile, on the flip-side/alternate universe of this musical, "Beth" (unlike her alter-ego "Liz") makes the choice to answer her constantly ringing phone—which turns out to be her old friend Stephen who is calling to offer her his old position as a deputy director in the city planner's office. She accepts and quickly rises up the career ladder. One problem: the new job means she is now in charge of a development project that her friend Lucas has organized a protest against (she gets him to change his opposition to the project by helping him get a book published). Another problem: Beth finds herself falling for her very married colleague Stephen (who for his part seems to be sending mixed signals)! And, oh boy, yet another problem: it turns out Beth's college pal Lucas (who happens to be bisexual) has always had a thing for Beth! With both of them single at the moment—and apparently mutually falling for the wrong people all the time—why not change their pattern and give each other a shot?
Directed admirably by Michael Greif, IF/THEN presents an ambitious narrative construct where each separate life path continuously criss-crosses with each other in a remarkably staged (if sometimes confusing) fashion right before our eyes. Admittedly, for myself, it took a few initial back-and-forths between "Liz" and "Beth" (the glasses/no-glasses, Clark Kent-ish transformation from "Liz" to "Beth" then back again gets trickier as the show goes along) before I got used to the machinations of the dual concurrent narratives. Heck, even my opening night guest admitted she was still a bit confused as we got to intermission.
But once the clear distinction between Liz's and Beth's stories gels and becomes easier to differentiate, IF/THEN certainly becomes much more absorbing and enjoyable to follow along, which helps the audience become more invested in the journeys of the characters. Along with Mark Wendland's innovative, moveable set designs, Emily Rebholz's hip costumes, Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully's gorgeous projections, Kenneth Posner's atmospheric lighting, and Brian Ronan's enveloping sound design, the musical's creative environmental aspects also help transport the audience right into the dueling timelines.
Overall, it is quite a clever conceit—if mostly to make the somewhat familiar story tropes more interesting than they really are. The stories and plot points here aren't exactly new territory, but the sum of IF/THEN's parts—which includes many genuinely lovely songs, beautiful pop orchestrations (courtesy of Michael Starobin implemented by music director Carmel Dean), lots of very funny lines, and some extremely emotional, tear-inducing moments—still all add up to make it one of the most interesting, contemporary-set new musicals to make it to Broadway.
And, yes, having a stellar cast helps tremendously. Aside from the stunning performance of Menzel in the lead role (who, frankly, is worth the price of a ticket alone), she is thankfully surrounded by equally amazing talent that elevates the property overall. As Liz/Beth's lesbian BFF Kate, LaChanze displays star power of her own, and provides not only much of the show's light-hearted moments that's a welcome break from the heartbreaking melodrama, she also has killer singing pipes to back it up.
Rapp is also in fine form here, offering vulnerability, wisdom, and snark in one huggable package. Hearing his voice paired with Menzel again is just heavenly. And in a star-making turn that should earn him plenty of future romantic leading man roles beyond this musical, Snyder provides much heart and soul to IF/THEN. From his first appearance to his last, the excellent Snyder commands your rapt attention whether it is with his superb soothing vocal sounds or with his nice-guy, boy-next-door looks. No wonder Elizabeth is instantly smitten...so is the audience.
Additionally, Delacruz, Herbert, Janine DiVita (as LaChanze's girlfriend Anne in both storylines), and Kyra Faith (as Elena, Beth's assistant and future protégé) also offer brilliant support, as does the entire ensemble cast, who are each afforded sporadic moments to come to the foreground as minor characters as well as serve as peripheral Gothamites. Kudos to choreographer Larry Keigwin for keeping these guys busy with some incredibly dynamic movements throughout the show.
At times amusing, other times touching, and sometimes a tad confusing, IF/THEN is by no means a perfect musical, but still has plenty of satisfactory moments and aspects that make it a worthy new show to experience. Effectively introspective but not pretentiously so, the musical does capture the slightly more affluent pulse and melodramatic #firstworldproblems of Contemporary New York City, personified in one person taking two different paths to pursue fulfillment and happiness. While we may all force ourselves to surrender to what random fate has in store, the musical still finds value in making personal choices to shape the direction of our lives.
For fans and even casual admirers of Ms. Menzel, don't miss this opportunity to witness her musical theater prowess live while she's still embodying these characters as she originally inhabited them.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos of the National Tour Company of IF/THEN by Joan Marcus. Review originally published for BroadwayWorld.
Performances of IF/THEN at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through January 3, 2016 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.