OK, grades are in. Let the catch-up begin.
I saw quite a few shows this spring, both on Broadway and off, but so far have only had a chance to blog about a handful of them. Now that school is officially out, I have some time to make my way through the backlog.
Let's start with the regrettable If/Then, which should really be called Wait/What?. As you may have heard, the show involves two separate story lines, both based on a seemingly innocuous decision that the lead character makes one day in the park. As the show progresses, the two stories intertwine, but rarely did I have any idea which story was developing when. By the end, I had given up trying to keep track. Worse yet, I didn't care, and really didn't see the point. Was one choice supposed to be better than the other? What are we to take away from this tale of The Road She Didn't Take But Maybe She Did?
I guess this is what happens when a writing team (Lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt) wins Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their freshman musical effort. Apparently they get carte blanche and the people surrounding them don't feel they have the authority to point out what isn't working. Either that, or there was a rush to get the show to Broadway to accommodate Idina Menzel's schedule.
Whatever the reason, If/Then simply wasn't ready for Broadway. After Next to Normal premiered in NYC at the Second Stage, the show went out of town for much-needed and ultimately successful revisions. Although If/Then had a tryout of sorts in DC, the show clearly could have benefited from another non-profit run or two to work out the kinks, of which there are many. Without the imprimatur of the staff, I can't imagine If/Then would have made it past a workshop, at least not in its current form. The show feels like a semi-promising but nonetheless inchoate NYMF production.
I will give Yorkey and Kitt points for trying something original, something ambitious. But If/Then comes off as a show not so much about people as ideas: chance versus fate, integrity versus selling out, gentrification versus displacement. It's more an intellectual exercise than an engaging musical, despite occasional flashes of humor and humanity. Part of the problem is that there are way too many characters, and each character has two separate story lines to embody, which attenuates the development even further.
Things get a bit better in the second act: the characterizations become more credible, and the story becomes more emotionally engaging. I still couldn't tell who was who and when, but I at least believed they were real people. By the middle of the second act, things once again become rushed and thin, with plot elements appearing seemingly out of nowhere, including a rather quizzical and fraught flight to London for the Idina Menzel character. Next to Normal had very similar problems during its original Off-Broadway run, but subsequent regional productions helped the creators streamline the show and make it more consistent. (I still have my philosophical problems with Next to Normal, but I will accede the essential quality of the show itself.)
But here's the thing: even if I had been able to keep track of which character was in which story and at what time, and even if the characters had been more fully and richly developed, I still can't figure out what it was all supposed to mean. What are we to learn from witnessing the different outcomes from that fateful day in the park? Are we simply meant to ponder how choices lead us in different, but not necessarily more efficacious, directions? Again, I don't get it.
As for the score, it didn't really stick with me, other than a reasonably effective duet in the second act for a gay couple. For the most part, the songs felt generic, with lots of anthemic singing and park-and-bark belting, as one might expect from a vehicle for Idina Menzel. The would-be hip choreography by Larry Keigwin was risible and pointless, as though it was part of a failed effort to make the show feel more contemporary and happening. Director Michael Greif keeps the action moving fairly swiftly, although the elaborate glass and steel set felt like more of a distraction from Greiff's efforts than an enhancement.
If/Then appears to be selling very well, thanks mostly to the star power of Ms. Menzel. Surrounding Idina is a cast of appealing stage professionals, including LaChanze, James Snyder, Anthony Rapp, Jenn Colella, Jerry Dixon, and Jason Tam, although, as I mention, the show might have been far better off with fewer characters but more meaningful development of each. If you'd like to see a show that has terrific performers, rich characterizations, and a soaring, memorable score, go see The Bridges of Madison County before it closes this weekend. If only Idina had chosen that show as her Broadway comeback vehicle. She may not be right for the part, but at least it would have run.