Thursday, March 10, 2016

If/Then - Choices at the Orpheum Theater

Jackie Burns
Photos by Joan Marcus
If/Then is the most recent musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Together they wrote Next to Normal which won a Pulitzer Prize, and a Tony Award. Next to Normal followed the life of a woman dealing with bipolar disease and how it affects her life and her family. If/Then shows us another strong woman and the way her choices change her life.

If/Then centers on Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), who has just ended a long relationship and moves back to New York to start over. The show begins with her asking the audience/universe what would have happened if she had not been in a specific place and time when she was. How would her life have been different? At that point she meets her old friend Lucas (original Broadway cast member Anthony Rapp), as well as her neighbor Kate (Tamyra Gray). Lucas knows her as Elizabeth, Kate knows her as Liz, and Elizabeth thinks, Why not? Why not be Liz? Why not be Beth? From there, we explore the lives of Liz, who ignores a phone call, and Beth, who answers it. The two stories play out in alternating scenes, sometimes making a switch mid-scene.

Since the same people populate both Liz's and Beth's lives, the question is how to show which life is which? A number of signifiers were used - Liz sometimes wears glasses - and the colors of the light changed for each story. (Note: KRL noticed the lights, Jules missed them altogether!)

National tour cast of IF/THEN 
The set was multi-level and modular with projections that showed city sights, map grids, and even street signs to suggest locations and reinforce Elizabeth's career as a city planner. While telling the story of Liz, the bottom portion of the screen took on a pinkish tone. While telling the story of Beth, it took on a blue tone. This was incredibly handy as even during the first scene Beth walks off the stage, puts on a jacket and comes back on as Liz. It was a great way to tell a story, and to make things very clear to the audience. There were also times that the screen had a purple hue to it which were the times where it didn't really matter which story was being told - the moment was true for both characters.

Jackie Burns and Matthew Hydzik.
The cast was strong throughout. Burns, who was Idina Menzel's standby in the Broadway production of If/Then, was fantastic playing two sides of the same character, with a lot of vocal power, but also some lovely subtlety. Rapp's Lucas was perhaps most changed by Elizabeth's choices, and he played the two realities of his character well. Gray was a wonderful presence and brought a great energy to her role. She made Kate a person you'd love to have for a friend. We're glad she was back in the show on Wednesday, when we saw it, as we'd heard she was out on opening night. And Matthew Hydzik was charming as Liz's love interest. (I was especially happy to see Hydzik again after seeing him as Mr. Snow in Carousel at Chicago Lyric Opera last year.-J)

The rest of the ensemble was stellar as well. Between their dance and actions and the projections, they made the stage pulse with the energy of the city. And we appreciated the way the hard-working cast made the scene changes fly by. Although the show runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes, it doesn't feel that long, as it moves at a great pace. The music kept things moving, and the songs served up character development, sometimes for both versions of a character in the same song!

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns and Anthony Rapp
It was refreshing to see a contemporary musical dealing with the kinds of issues we all face, from relationships to careers, and a leading lady who isn't an ingenue. The supporting characters were also remarkably well-defined people, with experiences and issues of their own, which can be hard to find in musical theater. And the story covers about four years, allowing Beth and Liz's choices to play out. Every part of the story feels true and real. It is a great journey to take with a fantastic cast and score. It kept us thinking about all the options and choices we make daily and how they affect our lives. It even led to a discussion of parallel universes and the many-worlds theory on the way out of the theater.

If/Then plays at the Orpheum through March 13, 2016.

If you go, bring along a little extra cash. This week is the annual BC/EFA (Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) appeal, and cast members will be collecting in the lobby for this very good cause.

(co-written by KRL and Jules)