REVIEW: If/Then, Richard Rodgers Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then. Photo: Joan Marcus
Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then. Photo: Joan Marcus

Richard Rodgers Theatre
18 April 2014
4 Stars

By and large, it is very difficult for new musicals to succeed. Plays are given more leeway by both audiences and critics. Plays can be about anything, do anything, but, oddly, musicals are required to have specific purposes and to conform to certain rules. For some reason, for example, the notion that a new musical must have “hum-hum-hummable” tunes to be successful persists.

Often, producers opt to back works which are based on other media, either films or books or short stories or poetry, the thinking being that audiences are more likely to come to see a new musical if it is about stories or characters they know about and like.

Completely original musicals, ones where the book is entirely fresh and tells a new story, are few and far between. But they can be commercially and artistically successful. In the last few years, the only Tony Award for Best Musical that has gone to an entirely original musical went to Book of Mormon in 2011. Next to Normal, while not a recipient of a Tony Award for Best Musical, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Often, when the work is completely new, Producers hedge their bets by insisting upon a “star”. Sometimes more than one. (This is true too of new musicals based on other media: one need only look at Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on the West End for confirmation of that proposition) This always makes one wonder whether those Producers have confidence in the material at all. Good material cast well and executed well will always succeed. Sometimes, such material makes stars. Wicked, for instance, made a star of Idina Menzel.

Now playing at the Richard Rodgers theatre on Broadway is the second entirely original musical from the creative team who took the Pulitzer for Next To Normal: the enigmatically titled If/Then, starring La Menzel.

There is no house curtain, so the audience enters to the sight of the moodily lit set courtesy of Mark Wonderland (design) and Kenneth Posner (lighting).There are two levels; one, lush and leafy with fire escape staircases for playing areas; the other, beneath the first, is sparse but suggests extravagance and wealth, looking as it does like some glamorous resort, complete with deck chairs and umbrellas. Two worlds then?

It feels exciting, compels attention. It makes for an impressive introduction. The mood is reflective and green.

Then the house lights go out, blackness descends and, after a beat, there is La Menzel in a single spotlight. The house goes wild for her. She waits for the tumult to cease.

Then it really begins.

And it is nothing like the pre-set suggests.

The set moves and morphs. There is a wonderful mirrored surface which becomes a backdrop or a ceiling but which provides reflections of what is happening on stage. It is beguiling and seductive; in a very simple way, Wonderland’s design provides the key to understanding the whole piece. Later, it becomes a star field, imagining the stellar possibilities, reflecting the true alignment of heavenly bodies. Of possible turns in life.

This is a story that might have been inspired by Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. It is about choices and consequences, possibilities and regret, the “might have been” and the “this is it”.

And it is built firmly on three things: love, trust and friendship.

La Menzel plays a woman, Elizabeth, who we meet briefly at the very start. Elizabeth is in a reflective mood, wondering what might have happened if she had not made a particular choice. From there on, the alternate choices play out. In one scenario, Beth rekindles a long ago romance with Lucas and flirts with her new boss, Stephen. In the other, Liz, spurred on by her friend, Kate, follows up a chance encounter with Josh in Central Park and succumbs to him, while Josh introduces Lucas to his friend David and they too start a romance.

As the first Act progresses, both alternate realities entwine and similar scenarios are played out as Liz and Beth face the consequences of their choices.

It is utterly intoxicating in every way. A vivid, thrilling examination of possibility, infused with joy, hope and unrestrained heart.

Most extraordinarily, the music (Tom Kitt) and lyrics (Brian Yorkey) are a seamless part of the narrative. More so than in Next To Normal, here the integrated and wholly fused nature of the narrative and the score actually creates the beauty that whips through the auditorium embracing characters and audience alike. Each song progresses the understanding of situation, character and the complexity of the situation. And because there are two realities, different characters are seen singing the same tunes with different lyrics and to different effect.

By the end of Act One, I doubt that any person in the audience did not have a favourite reality, did not want some possibility to turn up trumps.

But, actually, nothing can prepare you for what happens in Act Two. It is tragic, startling, surprising and completely normal in turn; human reactions to difficult situations are brought to the fore.

And then, it ends as it began: a cycle brought full circle. And, at the very end, a whole new possibility. Immaculately, the different worlds converge, and the possibility of new hope is encouraged, even cajoled.

It may be that I spent almost two-thirds of the piece in tears: because it was true, honest and full of real conundrums, real passions, real tensions and achingly real disappointments and tribulations. It really is astonishingly truthful.

So, as it happens, If/Then is the most extraordinary musical I have encountered since 1987, when the original Australian cast of Les Miserables took away my breath in Sydney.

If/Then is a complete game changer – immaculate and searing in every way, every tune, every thought.

Carmel Dean does an extraordinary job in controlling the musicians here: the playing is lively and precise, thrilling and remarkable. No note is not perfectly played here and, by and large, the singing is terrific. The musical part of this feast is entirely satisfactory.

If there was an issue with the ensemble, it was this: some of the numbers were too fussy with the ensemble “doing their bit”. In the end, the show is about the choices of the five principals and not, at all, about anything else. Yet, in the second Act, the ensemble seemed to effortlessly, significantly, improve the central tale. A sure sign that life is more than just the instant choices.

There are some truly luminous performances here.

As Josh, James Snyder is quite extraordinary. He is thoroughly masculine, a convincing soldier and lover/father, and he sings with remarkable ease. He has a true, ringing voice that unerringly meets the demands of the score. He sings and acts with remarkable dexterity and complete conviction. I doubt that anyone in the audience did not completely fall for his portrayal of the “perfect” man.

In the role of lesbian best friend, Kate, La Chanze was utterly superb. She sings with a virtuosity which is unrivalled: she can spit out incandescent top notes and also sing, full throttle, through the entire range from gentle singing to wild, volcanic belt. It is a terrific, winning performance.

As Anne, Kate’s partner then wife, Jenn Colella is sparkling and sound. She sings well, brilliantly even, and her perfectly judged characterisation is a joy.

Jason Tam excels as the lover of Lucas. He plays the part tremendously carefully, eschewing notions of “gayness” and just playing the truth: his David loves Lucas and unashamedly wants to make the relationship work. He is a perfectly realised character – and he sings wonderfully, entirely in the spirit of the score.

Anthony Rapp is fine as Lucas, but not astonishing. He does not seem capable of meeting the heights the score ascends. There is nothing awful about his performance, but it seems lack-lustre compared to the performances of the others. His singing is okay, but not thrilling, not an extraordinary realisation of the possibilities the score offers. Tam outshines him at every turn.

La Menzel is exceptional at playing the dual roles of Liz and Beth, at completely making both women real and understandable. She is, essentially, everywoman – well, at least everywoman who is interested in a career in urban planning and a life as lover, partner and mother – or not. Depending on which of Liz and Beth she is.

Her comic timing, her sense of the truth of each woman is exemplary. She acts all of the scenes clearly and truly. She delineates and creates each woman wonderfully, incisively and with tremendous heart. Her “What The Fuck” number is truly delightful.

But…her singing, like Rapp’s, seemed off-piste. She never, ever, sang in the very centre of the note, never hit the hot spot of the vocal line. Instead, she wavered around the note of every phrase, a wide beam of sound, rather than a direct pulse into the note. She produces waves of sound which strike around, near, adjacent to the note, but she never seems to hit it with unerring accuracy. Ever.

It’s not that she sings awfully; it’s just that she is not as centred in the notes as she might have been. The score really requires precise, accurate singing, but La Menzel provides a scatter-gun tonality: her voice is pale and limp, when it ought to be full blooded and strong. If she sang the music as La Chanze or Snyder does, the effect would be astounding, reverberating in its intensity.

Instead, as it is, it is nice singing. It does the trick but it does not spin the wheel.

Which is a great pity.

With other leads, people with extraordinary fire in their voices, instead of Rapp and Menzel, this would be an astonishing piece of musical theatre. It really out rents Rent: this is a modest tale about real people living and adjusting in New York. It is full of comic, tragic and truthful resonances about New York and life there.

If only the Producers had the courage to cast everyone on the basis of true skill and ability: if they had, neither Rapp nor Menzel would be in the cast. Rather, there would be people who could brilliantly and brightly enliven the score.

If that had happened, then this would be the show of the millennium thus far.

As it is, it is truly remarkable. Do not miss it. It is a new, original, musical better than many others these last ten years.

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