Thursday, April 14, 2016

Theatre: If/Then

From Robert Frost's iconic poem "The Road Not Taken", to movies like "Sliding Doors" and "Run Lola Run", and now the musical "If/Then", the concept of a critical decision or chance event impacting the course of one's life has been thoroughly explored.  If/Then is written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the pair behind the 2009 Tony award winning musical Next to Normal.

If/Then follows the two possible paths of recently divorced Elizabeth who moves back to New York to start over after a disastrous 10-year marriage.  She meets two friends in the park who have different plans for how she can spend her day. This one decision of who to go with will impact the rest of her life.

Free-spirited, lesbian kindergarten teacher Kate wants her to stay in the park to look for love and thinks she should go by the name "Liz".  On this path, Liz does not answer her cell phone when it rings and misses out on an offer of her dream job, but instead meets and marries military man Josh and has two children with him. 

Community organizer and activist Lucas, an old friend from college who knew Elizabeth as "Beth", wants her to go with him to attend a protest rally and start making professional connections.  On this path, Lucas encourages Liz to answer her phone, which launches her career as deputy urban planner for the city.  By leaving the park, Beth misses out on meeting Josh.

Like the movie "Sliding Doors", If/Then uses the dramatic conceit of interweaving scenes that switch back and forth between the life led by Liz versus the one led by Beth.  The opening song "What If" perfectly sets up the two possible paths–"Two different roads, and how each one bends ... You lose all the choices you don't get to make ... You wonder about all the turns you don't take".
The main differentiation between Liz and Beth is that Liz wears glasses while Beth does not.  Although it sometimes feels like we are watching Clark Kent transform into Superman and back again as we watch Elizabeth remove and put on her glasses between scenes, the clear visual cue allows us to easily tell which "character" is currently in play.

Initially to set up each character's path, entire songs are allocated to either to the Liz story-line ("It's a Sign:, "You Never Know") or the Beth story-line ("Map of New York", "Ain't No Man Manhattan").  But once the characters, their motivations and social or business interactions are firmly established, they would occasionally switch between the two plots even in the middle of a song.  This actually first happens at the end of "Ain't No Man Manhattan" when Beth turns into Liz and all the peripheral characters suddenly become part of Liz's domain.  In the poignant yet humorous and salaciously named song "What the F**k?", Liz starts singing about whether or not she should take the next step and sleep with Josh, but part way through the song, the scene changes and it becomes about Beth lamenting about her impulsive decision in sleeping with best friend Lucas.  But by the end of the lengthy scene, we have reverted back to Liz and it is Josh that is under the covers in bed with her–Thank goodness Liz sleeps with her glasses on! ;)  Similarly, the plot-laden song "Surprise" includes scenes from a surprise 39th birthday party for both Liz and Beth.

The staging for If/Then includes an overhead walkway which is raised and lowered above the stage as required.  This was not an issue when the action actually happened on the walkway, like in the Surprise party scene. But on more than one occasion, the walkway was left in a half-lowered position and yet the action happened at the back of the stage behind the catwalk.  Those of us who were sitting in the upper balcony had our views of the actors obstructed by the walkway, which did not seem to add anything to the set by being lowered.  This just felt like bad staging that did not take the patrons in the "cheap seats" into consideration.

 The role of Elizabeth was created for Idina Menzel who was then replaced by Jackie Burns for the National Tour.  Burns looks quite a bit like Menzel, at least from a distance and she definitely had the same booming voice.  In fact, all the cast had very strong voices, so much so that the microphones to amplify them were turned up a bit too loud, making it difficult to hear the words for some of the songs.

Because If/Then received mixed reviews on Broadway, I had fairly low expectations prior to watching the show, but was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it much more than anticipated. Although I did find many of the songs to be fairly generic, there were a few memorable (if not hummable) stand-outs, which is all any musical can hope for.   My favourite songs include "It's a Sign", "What the F**k", and the brilliant song "I Hate You" where Liz changes emotions with every line–"I hate you, I love you, Don't Leave Me".

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