By Karen Isaacs
If/Then, the musical now at the Bushnell through Aug. 7, has a good pedigree. It was written for Idina Menzel by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (/book and lyrics), the team that won the Pulitzer for their show Next to Normal. Both also have lots of other credits. It was directed by Michael Greif who also directed Nest to Normal, Rent and Grey Gardens.
Yet the show had a relatively brief run on Broadway in 2014 and given the people involved only a few award nominations. It was somewhat surprising that show launched a national tour.
The idea is clever. We make decisions every day and we recognize that each decision influences what happens next. English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has been exploring the consequences of even minor decisions for years, most notably in his play series Intimate Exchanges.
But to get back to If/Then. Elizabeth is starting a new life in New York City following a divorce after 12 years of marriage. She is a PhD in urban planning. The play begins when she makes a decision: to stay with a new friend who calls her Liz and listen to a guitar player in the park OR to go to a protest meeting with an old college friend who calls her Beth.
During the course of the evening, we see what might happen as each decision is played out. She ends up leading two very different lives.
The two lives Elizabeth leads as well as those of her friends have enough plot twists and turns to keep any self-respecting soap opera busy for at least a year.
One of the basic problems with the show is that it is often hard to know in which life the events are occurring. We are supposed know by whether Elizabeth is wearing glasses, but often it takes seconds or a minute before you can orient yourself as to which life you are seeing or when the events occurring. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner tries to help but the indicators are too subtle.
In one life, Beth (as she is called) takes a job for the city of New York, achieves great success but finds herself at 39 basically alone. She is estranged from her one of her college friends, Lucas (a terrific Anthony Rapp who originated the role) and may have had an affair with another, Stephen (Jacques C. Smith). But even this life has it drama: a pregnancy and abortion, an airplane accident and more.
In the other life, Liz ends up teaching urban planning, meets, gets pregnant by a ER doctor (Josh, played by Matthew Hydzik) who is also a reservist in the Army and has served two deployments; his third deployment, delayed by Liz’s second pregnancy (the show covers 4+ years) does not end well. Her friend Lucas ends up with David, a friend of Josh’s, but they debate having a family. Her other friends, Kate (Tamyra Gray) and her partner Anne (Janine DiVita) in one story marry and stay married and in the other marry and divorce. I can’t remember which is which.
Overall the music is written for Menzel’s “belter” style and with the loudness of the orchestra and the less than stellar Bushnell system, many lyrics and even some dialogue is totally lost, even though I was close to the stage. The opening song “What If?” which sets up the entire show was just sounds, the lyrics were totally lost. This musical is LOUD.
Much of the music is generic but there are a few softer and more interesting songs: Lucas’s “You Don’t Need to Love Me” as well as Josh’s “You Never Know” and Beth/Liz’s “You Learn to Live Without.”
Jackie Burns plays Elizabeth; she has the requisite belter style and tries to bring warmth into the role with some success.
The cast is quite good though they all look like clones of the original casts. They do as much as they can with the material.
The rather small (eight) member ensemble fill a multitude of roles.
Some of the problems with the show must be laid at the feet of director Michael Greif who should have done more to differentiate between the two lives and the various time periods. The dances by choreographer Larry Keigwin are generic current Broadway choreography.
I did like the set by Mark Wendland and the projections by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully.
If/Then is one of the few totally new musicals (no previous book, movie or song) to appear on Broadway in the last four years. It’s a valiant effort that doesn’t totally succeed.
If/Then is at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. For tickets visit bushnell.org or call 860-987-5900.