By Cate Marquis, Staff Writer
The Broadway musical “If/Then” focuses on a woman at a turning point in her life, and then follows her along two possible life paths—simultaneously. One path leads to a successful career, the other to love. The musical opened March 15 at the Fox Theater, where it will run through March 27.
The musical might better have been called “What If?” which is the name of the opening song, in which the main character Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) talks about how her life would have been different if she had not lingered in a New York park. The lyrics are about the role of chance, or even fate, which is the recurring theme in “If/Then.”
Elizabeth has moved back to New York City, where she went to college, after 15 years. When she graduated with her PhD in urban planning, she had married her boyfriend and moved to Phoenix for his job. Now divorced, she returns to the city with hopes of starting her long-delayed career as a city planner. She has reconnected with a college friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a serious guy and an activist in housing issues, and met a new friend and neighbor, Kate (Tamyra Gray), a free-spirited woman who teaches kindergarten. Will Elizabeth stay and listen to music with fun-loving Kate or go to a protest action with serious Lucas, as she promised? That is the pivotal decision, as the opening song tells us.
Elizabeth must choose but the play follows both choices: stay or go. If she stays, she meets Josh (Matthew Hydzik), a handsome military doctor just back from his second tour in Afghanistan. In the other storyline, Elizabeth leaves but takes a phone call that leads to her dream job.
The conventional way to tell Elizabeth’s two stories would be to follow one path in act one and the other in act two. “If/Then” makes the bold choice to do both at the same time. It is a clever idea but one that risks confusing the audience. The play deals with this by calling the character Liz, having her wear glasses, and using blue lights in the plot where she meets Josh, and calling her Beth, who wears contacts, and using red lighting where her career as a city planner flourishes. Still, with the quick changes within the same scene, it is still sometimes challenging to remember which Elizabeth we are dealing with at a given moment.
The characters dress like hipster millennials but they are in their late 30s to early 40s. The premise of the play—a group of close, diverse friends living and making life choices in an urban setting—might remind some of “Rent.” There is a good reason for that; some of the same people who created “Rent” were involved in this musical. “If/Then” is directed by Michael Greif, who directed “Rent” on Broadway, and the cast features Anthony Rapp, who was in the original cast of “Rent.” Some of the characters are very similar to “Rent” as are parts of the story arcs. Some have noted that “If/Then” essentially is “Rent”—or at least its more grown-up descendant.
The premise of “If/Then” is also a problem. The story of a woman choosing between career and love is very dated, even a bit objectionable. Still, the play has real drama, and is by turns funny, moving, touching, and heartbreaking, like real life. The best part of “If/Then” is its cast. The acting is strong, especially Burns as the two Elizabeths. Burns is wonderful but the rest of the cast is also good.
The singing is wonderful too, and Burns, Gray, and Rapp all can really sell a song. However, the tunes are not very memorable, despite lyrics and music by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, who won Pulitzers for “Next to Normal.” The songs sound similar, with nothing hummable that sticks in the mind, and like many new musicals, there are probably too many.
If you loved “Rent,” you might like “If/Then,” but note that the dramatic, cleverly structured story is much more appealing than its unmemorable score.