There are many reasons why one would want to root for Broadway in Chicago’s If/Then. For one, it’s not a riff on, say, a ’90s Disney film or Andrew Lloyd Webber or anything resembling the already-established brands that Broadway producers like to throw their cash at. Secondly, it’s a domestic, modern-day musical – no period pieces or hoop skirts or weasely uses of spectacle in an attempt to blind the audience into a star-studded stupor. Not only that, but it’s an original rom-com musical, which is a genre rarely seen anywhere past off-Broadway because, again, producers and money.
And in many aspects, root away, because If/Then has managed to succeed where many musicals of its caliber do not, as a big-ticket Broadway tour with an impeccable sense of direction and technical prowess. That is especially noteworthy considering that this is a show with dual plots–as in two story lines in one play, a la Sliding Doors. Here, the protagonist is living both the reality and the fantasy of her choices in one hell of an over-analyzed pipe dream, which absolutely makes for a great marketing tool in the intrigue department.
But let’s chat about that dual plot line for a minute: Our protagonist, worst-case-scenario, anal perfectionist Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), has moved back to New York City after spending ten sleepy years in Phoenix and a crap marriage. So when Elizabeth is faced with an imaginary–albeit way overblown–opportunity that puts the entirety of her future in the hands of the two friends she’s planning to meet over coffee, our leading lady finds herself leaning towards two vastly different worlds. Should Elizabeth follow Lucas (her old college friend and bisexual former flame),played by Anthony Rappto an activist protest and an eventual life of career excellence? Or should she go with Kate (Tamyra Gray), her new neighbor/spontaneous lesbian kindergarten teacher, to watch a street guitarist and thus, by chance, run into the great love of her life, army man Josh (Matthew Hydzik)? Dream job or dream man? Responsible “Beth” or carefree “Liz”? No glasses or glasses?
Yes, our leading lady’s two lives–one alternate reality, the other not–is differentiated by a name change and a handy pair of reading glasses. And yes, it does feel a little bit ridiculous watching a grown woman try to decide what her nickname should be in her 30s. Not to mention that these sentiments are only solidified in the caricature-like the writing at the musical’s start, which has the same shallow feeling of Elizabeth’s concern over her choice of fashion accessories. However, the glaring issue in If/Then is not in the management of the dual plots, which is deftly handled by its ingenious direction and by those darn glasses, but more so in its idealistic vision of a New York that exposes the story’s emphatic desire to be relevant to a modern audience. The show has all of the cleanliness and diversity of a Gap Christmas ad. This is welcome, since American culture desperately needs a healthy dose of social representation, but the approach in which this representation is mounted feels a bit force-fed, as if the show is trying to show you that it is cool! It is hip! And yeah, If/Then, I get it. You’re fine and “with the times.” Yet there’s also a great deal of obviousness that the story can’t seem to shake off. The plot is a bit straightforward–probably to create a streamlined direction one can easily follow while viewing the two story lines–but then again, even the show’s symbols reveal its cards a little too eagerly, because nowadays, a man in army greens is a siren blaring the words “FORESHADOW” and “TRAGEDY.”
That’s not to say that this show is a complete failure in execution, because that would be an overstatement in the worst possible way. The performers, for one, are, at this point in the tour, rock solid. Jackie Burns is a charismatic tour de force–albeit a carbon copy of the role’s original leading lady, Idina Menzel, in appearance, vocal chops, and cadence. If the Playbill had forgotten to take off Menzel’s name, at least 94 percent of the audience would have failed to notice, myself included. Then there’s the always reliable Anthony Rapp, a veteran of the stage who proves his worth again here, always able to balance vulnerability and sarcasm with gusto. Even Tamyra Gray, whose performance seemed a bit two-dimensional at the show’s beginning, opened up her character nicely as the plot progressed in a way that really showcased her natural abilities. Thus by the time she hits the second number, Ms. Gray has shaken off any cliches she may have previously hung tight to and compellingly owns her song “It’s a Sign.”
And like Ms. Gray, If/Then undergoes similar growing pains, with a rocky start that eventually smooths itself out as it finally has the bright idea to use its charms to carry the audience away. The real magic of the show is in its less-emphatic touches–how it is able find the subtle moments that relate to the human experience in such a genuine and true way that you can’t help but feel like high-fiving the production team. One real knockout example is the song “What the Fuck?,” which masterfully handles romance and sex and the royal messes we can make with each in a truly hilarious manner. (But then again, who couldn’t relate to a song entitled “What the Fuck?”)
However, outside of the charm and that one cheeky song, there’s another layer of truthfulness which inevitably saves this musical and helps it graduate into its big girl knickers–and this has much to do with music and lyrics/book team Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who previously helmed Tony Award winner (and another successful domestic musical) Next to Normal. Believe it or not, the saving grace can be found in the dual plots. Sure, for much of the production, it seems obvious as to which of the roads not taken is the suckier road, but by the show’s second act, and especially as it approaches the end, one’s not so sure. And isn’t that the way of life? Despite the choices and the screw ups and the sex had (or not), there is no such obviousness in life. “Black” and “white” living is fiction, even in this pristine, fictional New York, and as the show finally begins to realize this, it is to that end where If/Then is an (un-theoretical) joy.
If/Then is running at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., until March 6. Show times are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2 and 7:30pm. Tickets range from $25-$98 and may be purchased online, at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph, 151 W. Randolph, 18 W. Monroe, and 175 E. Chestnut), at all Ticketmaster retail locations, or by calling 800-775-2000.