Monday, November 25, 2013

If/Then Pre-Broadway Engagement at The National Theatre in Washington DC

Washington DC audiences have the opportunity to see The National Theatre being used as it once was in the golden age of musical theater, as a try-out location for new works headed to the Great White Way. Bit of trivia: for those too young to remember when it was normal for musicals and plays to iron out their kinks with several stops prior to opening in New York the wonderful opening number from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate is a love letter to this practice ("in Philly, Boston, or Balti-mo"). The creative team behind the Pulitzer-prize winning musical drama Next To Normal have chosen as their next project another original story. The challenge is that the way the story is told still needs to be clarified so that audience members who purchase tickets without knowledge of the format do not walk out hopelessly confused. The good news is that there is an ember of a potentially great musical on the stage of The National Theatre. By the end of its run, it may be ready for the big time.

If/Then tells the stories of Elizabeth, a divorcee in her late 30's who has left her marriage and life in Phoenix to return to New York City. Yes, I meant stories. In a fateful encounter in Madison Square Park she meets with both her best friend, Lucas and her new neighbor Kate. Both of these friends make her an offer, Kate to simply go out with her and Lucas to attend a protest. Whichever offer she accepts will change the path of her life over the next five years. The challenge of If/Then is that these tales unfold simultaneously. It is not yet 100% clear for the audience that this is happening. Yes, the film Sliding Doors had the same concept, but Elizabeth's story is a unique tale of the possibilities of chance.

There are two devices used to keep the story straight.  In Kate's story Elizabeth decides to call herself Liz. Background lighting for Liz's story is pink. In Lucas' version Elizabeth decides to adopt her college nickname of Beth. Beth's story lighting is blue. Unfortunately, there are a couple of moments when different lighting is used (and at least one instance at this performance where the pink storyline had the blue lighting). Anything the director and writers can do to continue to iron out the ambiguity would be a plus.

Within each tale are several supporting characters. Not all of the characters appear in each story and those that do have very different arcs. The most affected are Kate (LaChanze) and Lucas (Anthony Rapp). Kate, a lesbian kindergarten teacher has a romance with Anne (Jenn Colella). The ups and downs of their romance are documented with very different outcomes. Lucas is a bisexual man who in Liz's story develops a romance with David (Jason Tam), a doctor. In Beth's storyline Lucas' life is much more tied to Beth's and David simply appears in his role as a physician. Beth hires a personal assistant in Elena (Tamika Lawrence). Elena does not exist in Liz's story at all. A last pivotal character that appears in both stories is Stephen (Jerry Dixon) another of Elizabeth's friends from college who serves as a mentor in both stories, and potential love interest only in one.

The most significant difference is the character of Josh (James Snyder). Josh is a doctor and Army reservist who briefly encounters Liz in the park at the beginning of the show and only Liz. By choosing the Liz story Josh becomes the love of Elizabeth's life. Yet, book writer Brian Yorkey has not made If/Then into a simple tale of love and family in one direction, powerful job in the other. That is what elevates If/Then's intertwining stories to another level.

As with Next To Normal, the songs, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey, serve to either advance the plot or deepen character development. There is no song list in The National Theatre's Playbill reflecting the nature of the constant changes that occur during an out-of-town production. Suffice to say that LaChance and Anthony Rapp both receive good songs that truly enliven their characters. James Snyder's Josh has a wonderful heartfelt song about the joys and terrors of parenthood.

The best material goes to our girl Elizabeth, portrayed by the perfectly cast Idina Menzel. Her act one song "WTF" (spelled out in the show) is a comedic highlight that straddles both storylines. Her act two ballad, "Learn To Live Without" is raw with heartache.  Given that she is playing two very different stories, but the character development must be possible for the same woman, Ms. Menzel rises to the challenge with aplomb.

If/Then shows the growing pains inherent in new work. We should rejoice that this is a work intended for Broadway that is not based on a film. If/Then in its infant stage is challenging and its twists and turns are not always crystal clear to the average audience member. Give it a chance to grow up, the potential to shine is there.

If/Then is in its pre-Broadway engagement at The National Theatre in Washington DC through December 8, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Note: the performance reviewed was in the second week of previews. As with many new works, changes were being made to the show prior to its official opening on November 24, 2013.

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