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If/Then Musical review by Chip Deffaa

But the first act ended with her belting out long, and loud, and, hard and strong, in a way that I found strident, forced, not dramatically justified. To my ears, her sound, as she closed out the first act, was no longer attractive.

If/Then‘s
strengths include freshness and originality–certainly a rare enough commodity on the Great White Way these days–and several strong, memorable, largely satisfying performances: Anthony Rapp, LaChanze, Idina Menzel. You’ll get your money’s worth just seeing Rapp, LaChanze, and Menzel perform. These are seasoned pros in peak form. (Director Michael Greif cast this show very well. And Jerry Dixon and James Snyder, in supporting roles, deliver fine performances as well.)

Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then – photo by Joan Marcus

If/Then–with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt–is a 100% original musical. It is not based on a hit movie or play. (I like that right there.) And it will pique your interest. The show explores how one person’s life might be different, if different choices were made–with seemingly small choices leading to widely divergent outcomes. I liked this premise enormously. I was intrigued. And, for the most part, I really enjoyed the company of the players on the stage. Would I recommend the show? Yes. I had some reservations about the show, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I could see this show reaching people seated near me–see it in their eyes, even before I asked them what they thought of it. And I’ve seen, via comments on Facebook and Twitter, how much some of my friends and acquaintances like this new show. As Brandon Pollinger, an actor and wholehearted admirer of If/Then, so eloquently expressed it: “It takes talent to give a great performance, to remind people why they love art. It takes heart and the willingness to be vulnerable as an actor to give a life-changing experience to people through theater. Only that kind of art can remind someone why they love theater, when they didn’t know they forgot. If/Then captures this better than any show I’ve ever had the honor of seeing.” I applaud any show that can stir people and inspire people to that extent. And I could see If/Then touching some audience members more fully than the show touched me.

Here are my reservations. I wish the storytelling were clearer, at times, and more concise. I was confused a bit, early in the show. Once I fully understood what was going on, things got easier for me. But then, eventually, the show began to feel a bit repetitious. And I could see where it was going. I’m told they did some tightening/trimming/reworking between the show’s tryout run in Washington, DC. (which, alas, I did not get to see) and its opening on Broadway. (I heard they creators shortened the show by about 12 minutes.) I wish they’d done a bit more tightening/trimming. I think this is a show that could have more clarity and impact if it were a bit more tightly focused, and if transitions between alternate realities were sometimes demarcated more clearly. I’m very glad I saw If/Then–it’s unlike any other Broadway musical I’ve seen, and I hope it does well at the box-office–but I also wish the creators could, at some point, take another look at the material. I think it could be made stronger.

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp in If/Then – photo by Joan Marcus

My own personal favorite moment in the show–and of course this is subjective, simply one person’s reaction to what he witnessed–was seeing/hearing Anthony Rapp sing to Menzel that she did not have to love him; they could make a life together work, even without that. The song was unusual, and it was performed to perfection, with Rapp giving a master class in how to act in singing a song, how to interpret lyrics with utter conviction, how to make a song compelling. (I wish I could tell you the title of that song, but the Playbill I received, oddly enough, did not list titles of any individual songs, the Playbill only indicated that the score was by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.) It was a quiet, honest moment in the show; for me, it was one of the high points of the whole season; it just felt very human, very real, very beautiful. For me, the best acting in the show occurred while Rapp was singing that song. I’ve always responded to Rapp’s work. He doesn’t always get flashy roles, but whatever roles I’ve seen him in, from the reserved narrator “Mark Cohen” in Rent to the hapless “Charlie Brown” in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, to the loyal gay friend in this show, he’s found moments in which to make an impact.

LaChanze, who’s been an asset to assorted Broadway musicals over the years–including Dreamgirls, Company, Ragtime, The Color Purple–is tremendously appealing here. With her, as with Rapp, the producers are lucky enough to have a star in a supporting role, and she serves the show brilliantly.

As for Menzel, I have mixed feelings. I really like the warmth of her sound when she does not push too hard, and I found much of her performance very agreeable. She’s the star of this show and for the most part likeable. But the first act ended with her belting out long, and loud, and, hard and strong, in a way that I found strident, forced, not dramatically justified. To my ears, her sound, as she closed out the first act, was no longer attractive. This is a very subjective matter, of course; I took a friend–an ardent Menzel fan–who lives for the moments when Menzel can belt to the max. To him, the louder, stronger, and more powerfully she can sing, the better; but to my ears, at the close of the first act, her singing was hinting at screaming–and I would have preferred something more reined-in. Her singing at the end of the first act was, for me, off-putting; I felt I was being pushed away. By contrast, her big singing at the very end of the show felt more appropriate to me; it was more justified dramatically there, and her voice also simply sounded better to me. But to me, her singing at the close of the first act was not pleasant. I’ve seen Menzel in assorted shows over the years, from Rent to Summer of ’42, to Wicked, and so on… and I’ve found her, from time to time, too strident for my own tastes. I can overlook such moments, and appreciate the many parts of her performance that I do enjoy. But for me, she sometimes blares in a way I don’t enjoy…. I know, I know, I will now be getting hot dissenting Emails from diehard Menzel fans who love everything she does; and that’s fine. (Feel free to write me at Footloose518@aol.com. I know that friend I took will be saying: “Let Idina be Idina!”) All I can do I relate honestly my own reactions. She’s a powerhouse, and I’ll always go to see her. I enjoy a lot of what she does. But–so long as we’re being honest here about our reactions–I sure don’t enjoy everything she does.

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