Imagine two realities existing at once: a world where a performer sings a song about letting go that makes her an international celebrity among the kindergarten set, and an alternate world where she stars on Broadway in a profanity-laden show about sex, death, and urban planning.
Both of those possible universes merged in 2014, when Idina Menzel, the voice of Frozen's Snow Queen, became Elizabeth in If/Then, a musical that ran on the Great White Way for a year before heading out on a national tour that's just landed in Minneapolis. Menzel is no longer in the show, but don't worry, all the urban planning is still there.
The conceit of If/Then, created by the same team (playwright Brian Yorkey, composer Tom Kitt, director Michael Greif) behind Next to Normal, is that a seemingly incidental decision made by Elizabeth (originally Menzel, now Jackie Burns) regarding whether or not to stop and watch a drummer/guitar busker duo has profound consequences in her life — and we watch both narratives run their courses simultaneously.
At the show's outset, Elizabeth is newly divorced and has relocated to New York. In one world, Elizabeth becomes "Liz," a woman who more or less finds domestic bliss with a doctor (Matthew Hydzik) who's also a soldier. In the other world, Elizabeth becomes "Beth," a successful city employee who doesn't find Mr. Right, only Mr. Right Now (Anthony Rapp), an old friend who happens to be bisexual and has no idea that in an alternate universe he's swooning in the arms of the show's second hot doctor (Marc Delacruz).
No wonder Menzel belts "Let It Go" with such conviction. You'd want to take a load off too if you spent that much time in the head of Elizabeth, a woman whose two lives are each complicated enough for two shows — and yes, there's enough plot in If/Then for four musicals. The show has 10 named characters, 20 songs (although in fairness, Kitt's music is so bland that many of them could essentially be the same song), and two major plotlines, each with a minimum of three major subplots and five different endings (at least, that's what it feels like).
Appropriately for a show about urban planning, If/Then is a formidable feat of engineering. The two plots literally oscillate on a stage that rotates to present Mark Wendland's Escher-like sets from different angles depending on what universe we're in. The universes sometimes trade places within the same song, as in the aptly titled number "What the Fuck?," where Elizabeth wakes up in bed with a man whose identity varies depending on her nickname.
To critique the cast members' performances in a show like this feels a little like judging the artistic expression in an Olympic gymnast's floor routine: If you nail that triple backflip, it seems churlish to call you out for the inexpressive prancing that follows it. Burns does yeoman's work emphasizing Elizabeth's empathy and dry humor, but unfortunately, the show's creators didn't spend as much time developing her character(s) as they did plotting the story machinations.
Heavy with eggheaded ruminations on fate and free will, If/Then seems to be setting itself up to examine how we grow and change in different ways depending on how our life circumstances evolve. Instead, it turns out to be an extended examination of a much simpler question: Is it still possible in this day and age for a single gal to find love in the city?
If/Then is refreshingly matter-of-fact about formerly taboo topics like bisexuality and abortion. Yet it's surprisingly retrograde on its central plot pivot: the tension between career and family. Without revealing any second-act spoilers, there are two very different things that Beth and Liz are living without, and the show's approach to each loss reflects a deeply traditional sensibility that fits all too well with the stale Ricky-and-Lucy schtick that If/Then tends to turn to when it needs a laugh.
A lot of the people involved with this production are famous for other things. Yorkey, Kitt, and Greif did Next to Normal. Burns was Elphaba in Wicked. Rapp was the original Mark in Rent. Tamyra Gray (who's on the tour as Elizabeth's neighbor Kate, but was replaced on Tuesday night by the high-energy Charissa Bertels) was a finalist on the first season of American Idol. The whole production, indeed, feels like an alternate universe for these accomplished artists.
If you're at that pivotal crossroad, deciding whether to buy a ticket for If/Then or to run off to that other thing you're thinking of doing, which should you choose? It's up to you. But like Elizabeth, you'll have to decide whether you're ready to trust your fate to a bro playing a hand drum.
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