Music by Tom Kitt
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Larry Keigwin
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
New Musical Examines Complications of Adult Life
Thirteen years ago, Avenue Q perfectly captured the hopes and fears of recent college graduates, and it remains a perfect portrait of early-to-mid twenty-somethings to this day. But those people who first saw themselves in the hapless Muppets are now on the cusp of middle-age, and having significantly shaped the paths their lives will likely unfold on, they might be wondering whether any decisions they are likely to make will still have massive impacts on their futures. For those people, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s new musical If/Then, now in its first national tour, offers a reflection on where they are now. The story, which depicts two alternate timelines, is one of the more interesting concepts to come from a Broadway stage recently, and this tour features two of the leading Broadway actors of their generation: Jackie Burns, of the tour of Wicked, and Anthony Rapp, who played Mark Cohen in the first Broadway production of Rent.
Elizabeth (Burns) has just returned to Manhattan after ending a ten-year long marriage in Phoenix. Though she has an advanced degree in urban planning, most of the rest of her adult life is suddenly irrelevant, and she can either revert to her grad school social circle, or start anew entirely. The choice is made very obvious one day in the park, when she meets up with her old friend, the activist Lucas (Rapp), and her new neighbor, the kindergarten teacher Kate (Tamyra Gray). Lucas, who calls her Beth, asks her to attend his protest, but Kate, who calls her Liz, asks her to go to a concert. Depending on who she spends the evening with, Liz/Beth and all her friends will have quite different futures.
The core of Yorkey’s book is that Liz and Beth both wind up as quite normal upper-middle class professionals. Liz meets, falls in love with, and eventually has a family with Josh (Matthew Hydzik), a soldier from Nebraska who joined the army to pay for medical school. In this timeline, Liz has a teaching position which is respectable, but not amazingly prestigious. Ironically, since the Liz timeline was started by her accepting Kate’s invitation, the ripple effect of her relationship with Josh has a better influence on Lucas, who falls in love with Josh’s fellow doctor, David (Marc Delacruz), while Kate has problems with her lover, Annie (Janine DiVita). In the Beth timeline, getting arrested at Lucas’s protest proves to be no obstacle to her obtaining a job with the Department of City Planning from her ex-boyfriend, Stephen (Daren A. Herbert). Using her new position of power, Beth is able to reconcile with Lucas’s organization and wield enormous influence for the betterment of Manhattan, but her and Lucas’s personal lives remain much less fulfilled, and they make the devastating mistake of hooking up with each other.
However, the musical is hardly so gauche as to suggest the entire difference in Liz/Beth’s lives is whether they pursue family or a career. Both have their complications, and the book seems to suggest that true love exists in this story’s world, regardless of timeline, but that its duration can be influenced. Burns makes both Elizabeths quite likable, and is to be commended for her acting in both roles. Even when her character is making poor choices, her reasons for doing so remain sympathetic. I only wish Tom Kitt’s music hadn’t relied so much on her and fellow former Elphaba Idina Menzel’s tremendous volume (they both played Elizabeth on Broadway). Her song “What the Fuck?” is cute, and “You Learn to Live Without” is poignant at just the right moment late in the show to describe both Liz and Beth’s very different states of mind. But there are also too many monotonous anthems that require Burns to belt recitatives.
To accommodate the two storylines, director Michael Greif has kept the staging as fluid as possible. Designer Mark Wendland’s main set piece is a turntable, and Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully’s projections provide most of the visuals. Their use of maps of Manhattan reinforces one of the show’s key themes: the interconnectedness of all the people in the city, and the importance of seemingly small actions by each of them. Like Burns, the ensemble all acquit themselves well in roles which show mature people dealing with real problems. While the music is, for the most part, secondary to the story, the strings-heavy orchestra provides a warm sound which would be soothing were the volume not too high for the acoustic instruments. Larry Keigwin’s twirl-heavy choreography also allows the book to take precedence, but with a book as intelligent as Yorkey’s, that’s alright. For people who have settled into life, If/Then provides reassurance that the world’s still in motion, and that a normal life still has great significance.
Reviewed February 24, 2016
For more information, see If/Then’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph, Chicago. Tickets are $25-98; to order, call 800-775-2000 or visit BroadwayInChicago.com. Performances are through March 6. Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.