Conditional Success

''If/Then'' features some great performances, led by Idina Menzel -- but also a convoluted plot and mostly overwrought music

The creators of the new musical If/Then have given D.C. theatergoers many reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. The most obvious three: a grand return for Idina Menzel, in a demanding new role that proves she’s still got those powerful, pristine pipes and seasoned acting chops last seen in her Tony-winning turn in Wicked a decade ago; an equally celebratory return for LaChanze, who won the lead-actress Tony two years after Menzel for her work in The Color Purple and here gives a strong, standout performance in a truly supporting role; and of course the fact that If/Then is being staged here first.

As a result, Washingtonians get to see it before any other locale, including Broadway, where it won’t make its debut until March.

If/Then: Idina Menzel (L) and James Snyder

If/Then: Idina Menzel (L) and James Snyder

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

There are still more reasons to give thanks and see the latest show from the creators of the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical Next to Normal before it ends its short D.C. run next Sunday, Dec. 8. But – and this is a big qualifier – don’t go into it expecting to get an early Christmas gift, a show you’ll still be swooning about into the new year. Because after you reflect on and talk up Menzel and LaChanze — and there’s Rent‘s Anthony Rapp among the cast, too — you’ll get mired in the muck of what is a confusing show, with a convoluted plot and mostly overwrought music to match.

It’s a struggle just to make sense of writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey’s overly ambitious plot, which mostly moves at a New York-paced gallop and often abruptly alters course just like a train on the city’s subway. Menzel stars as middle-aged Elizabeth, a Type A analytical woman who overthinks and second-guesses every decision she makes. That predilection hasn’t helped her as much as she thinks it should — certainly not when it comes to love. We meet Elizabeth just after returning to an urban dream of New York, after a spell in the sprawling nightmare of Phoenix where she moved with a husband who didn’t value her or her ambitions. She’s a credentialed urban planner, the show jokes at one point, which does not mean she’s cut out to work at Urban Outfitters.

After leaving Arizona, Elizabeth, in short order, meets her lesbian neighbor Kate, a school teacher played by LaChanze; reconnects with her bisexual college friend and sometime-lover Lucas, played by Rapp; and has several random run-ins with Josh (James Snyder) before chancing what Kate calls fate and agreeing to a date. From there the plot zigzags back and forth between several possible life and career paths for Elizabeth — alternately known as ”Liz” and ”Beth” — chief among them whether to remain a professor and find fulfillment as a mother, or stay childless and aim for greater success as a high-profile city official.

Those paths don’t appear to be mutually exclusive by show’s end, or at least not to my understanding. If/Then is fuzzy on ”what is” versus ”what might have been” in Elizabeth’s life. Whatever path she takes, the end result is that Elizabeth has slowly made a kind of peace with a reality that is unpredictable — and always changing. No matter how much you’ve done and how much you’ve learned, she sings, every day you’re ”Always Starting Over.” That penultimate number is the show’s crowning glory, its version of Gypsy‘s ”Rose’s Turn,” complete with Menzel belting it out to the balcony.

If only it didn’t take so long to get to such a display of bravura. Instead, Elizabeth is an identifiable but hard-to-love character, one who dwells in the past — and worries about her future — more than appreciating the present. The story’s biggest saving grace is probably LaChanze’s character Kate, a nice, light counterbalance to Elizabeth’s neurosis. Kate helps make Elizabeth more open to chance and less anxious about things she can’t quite explain. You don’t exactly love many of the other characters in If/Then, and you can’t single out many of the other supporting actors for praise, either. That’s no doubt partly a consequence of them still settling into their characters, particularly in a show, directed by Michael Greif, still finding its way. (The show officially opened Sunday, Nov. 24, after a few weeks of previews when reportedly it underwent significant changes, no doubt including character development.)

If/Then
starstar-1/2
To Dec. 8
National Theatre
$53 to $178
800-514-3849
www.thenationaldc.com

Aside from ”Always Starting Over,” the all-character ”Finale” and a few other songs, you won’t be singing many praises for Tom Kitt’s music. Or, at least, several awkward leaps and disjointed passages throughout will trip you up in your appreciation. Structurally the music is far more complicated than it should be. It often seems complicated simply for the sake of being complicated. For example, the random leap to falsetto in a late passage of ”You Never Know” doesn’t help the song, and it certainly doesn’t help James Snyder’s voice, which strains beyond comfort. There are also a few subpar songs, such as ”A Map of New York,” unfortunately drawn out too long and seemingly never-ending, with long passages of dialogue sprinkled in between choruses.

Larry Keigwin of the contemporary dance company Keigwin + Company is making what will be his Broadway debut as a choreographer — and it is certainly different than most anything else seen on the Great White Way. Keigwin has the actors move in loose, subtle steps, more individualistic than in-synch; more blasé than bombastic — Bob Fosse’s style it is not. It’s far easier to appreciate Mark Wendland’s elaborate set design, as well as Kenneth Posner’s accentuating lights, often bold and bright. The set includes a turntable spinning around the rooms of Elizabeth’s spacious apartment, and a large overhead mirror rotating to add depth and dimension to the show’s most hopeful scenes, all set in Madison Square Park, where the principal characters meet.

Too bad we can’t spend more time there.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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