If you’re buying a ticket to the new musical “If/Then,” which has just opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, then chances are you’re doing so to see the wickedly talented Idina Menzel. The 42-year-old Tony-winner’s career has been on an upswing lately, fueled by her powerhouse vocal performance in Disney’s animated blockbuster “Frozen” and her Oscar-winning, chart-topping hit “Let It Go.”
Audiences looking for their Menzel-fix in “If/Then” won’t be disappointed; she spends almost all of the two and a half-hour show onstage. But the show’s muddled plot might leave you wondering what the new musical, from the creators of “Next to Normal,” is trying to say.
Menzel plays Elizabeth, a 38-year-old divorcee who has just moved to New York City for a fresh start. Elizabeth is a pragmatist. She’s prudent and cautious and believes in choices. Yet Elizabeth is also a dreamer, plagued by self-doubt. And in a life of “what ifs,” Elizabeth can’t seem to move forward without wondering about the road not taken.
And that’s where the show’s gimmick kicks in. Faced with the choice of spending time with her sassy new friend Kate (LaChanze, of “The Color Purple”) or her stubborn old pal Lucas (Anthony Rapp, of “Rent”), Elizabeth envisions two alternate paths her life might go on. In one, she’s “Beth,” a career-oriented city planner who makes all the wrong choices in love. In the other, she’s “Liz,” a carefree teacher married to Josh (James Synder, of "Cry-Baby"), with two kids and an itch to do something more professionally satisfying.
“If/Then” reveals these paths simultaneously, switching between storylines from scene to scene, and sometimes even within the same scene. (Think “Sliding Doors: The Musical.”) To keep track of which Menzel is on stage at any given moment, one of her two personas wears a pair of glasses. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner has also lit each concurrent path differently: one in red, one in blue - and moments when they cross in purple.
The problem is, none of that really provides clarity, as it often takes a few moments into each scene to remember which version of Elizabeth we’re seeing. It doesn’t help that the supporting characters have different outcomes in each scenario, too. Lucas explores each side of his bisexuality in the dueling fates. It’s hard to keep everything straight.
To do that, Brian Yorkey’s ambitious-but-complicated book could use some major streamlining (especially one out-of-nowhere plane crash). His lyrics often read like they’re pulled from chapters in a self-help book, and his need to run through plot prevents his characters from having moments of true discovery and growth.
Still, there are exceptions--especially “I Hate You,” in which Menzel gives Elizabeth levels we hadn’t seen before: vulnerability, anger and neediness. Ultimately, Menzel is incredibly likable as Elizabeth, even in the face of some very unlikable actions. Her honest, dry line readings punctuate the well-needed lines of comedy, and she throws herself into every moment with full commitment.
Menzel’s also never sounded better. The songs of “If/Then” perfectly fit her voice, and the sweeping melodies and rock tones of Tom Kitt’s score bring out levels of Menzel’s earthy tone you won’t quite soon forget. When Menzel sings, all problems with the book simply disappear. She’s why you’re there, and it’s hard to imagine how the show would survive without her. Standing center stage at the show’s climatic number, “Always Starting Over,” Menzel’s voice will bring chills up your spine.
The supporting cast of “If/Then” is equally strong, especially Tony-winner LaChanze, whose boundless energy, spunk and positivity makes her character a breath of fresh air. Snyder is charming as Josh, Elizabeth’s love interest. A steadfast, sincere presence in the show, his first act duet with Menzel (“Here We Go”) is a tender, emotional highlight.
“Rent” fans will be most excited to see Menzel reunited on stage, 18 years later, with her co-star Anthony Rapp. Rapp’s Lucas is a clear evolution of his “Rent” character, Mark Cohen--down to his jagged dance moves. Lucas is a housing activist, squatting in-between barista shifts and political protests, though it’s often hard to swallow the noise he feeds us. “Aren’t you a little old to be living like this?” Beth asks him in one scene, as if to challenge the audience to move on from their “Rent” memories.
That may be harder to do, especially with director Michael Greif helming both projects. But if you’re looking for comparisons between the two rock musicals, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them beyond casting. “Rent” tackled the insecurities of life in NYC in your 20s by celebrating the freedom of possibility; “If/Then” tackles the insecurities of life in NYC in your 30s by embracing doubt and uncertainty. “La Vie Boheme” this is not.
“If/Then” begins with one version of Elizabeth thinking back upon the choices that she’s made. As we watch both of Elizabeth’s paths in flashback, we inevitably spend the whole show trying to decide which version of Elizabeth we met at the beginning--Liz or Beth. In the end, Yorkey and Kitt answer that, but they want us to focus less on which path is right, instead embracing the fact that each path is, simply, different. That may be all well and good, but that point gets clouded in confusing storylines.