IF/THEN is a Mostly Modern Musical

By Dan Cava 

July 21, 2016

This week only, If/Then hits the Belk Theater stage as a part of Blumenthal Performing Arts flagship Broadway Lights series. The musical’s audacious structure, thoughtful themes, and standout performances make it very easy to recommend, even if the story’s contemporary setting and average melodies leave a little to be desired.

If/Then’s most attractive feature is its bold attempt to alternate between two parallel stories.  At the production’s outset, recent divorcee Elizabeth has retreated back to her NYC home, and she ponders (while singing, of course) what her life would have looked like had she made a series of initially insignificant decisions– answering a phone call, attending a party– a little differently.  Elizabeth’s analytical disposition has her bracing for the worst, even while questioning her own need to steer her own course: “What if I’m bound for disaster? // What if I fall off the cliff? // Will I ever just learn how to live and not wonder ‘what if’?’’ The characters then enact those initiating decisions out for us two times, one where she takes the call and gets a high-powered job where she gains the nickname “Beth,” and the other where she skips the call, meets a guy, and becomes known to her friends as the more casual-sounding “Liz.”  For the rest of the musical, we are shown both sets of outcomes, with the actor playing Elizabeth doing double duty. As a helpful guide for the audience, she wears glasses to signal Liz-mode and goes without to signal Beth-mode.

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus Original Broadway Company

It is exactly as complicated as it sounds, and the burden to some degree is on the audience to keep up. However, the production makes very clever use of its stage design and choreography to help keep attentive viewers oriented. The story itself also provides a host of guideposts, as Elizabeth’s two lives, as well as the lives of all her friends, take on very distinct differences as her decisions ripple into results over time. The structure asks for a level of engagement uncommon to the simpler storytelling stylings of most musicals, but I for one found the effort to be rewarding.  It’s not exactly Inception-level complexity and the bifurcated story lets the characters explore issues of choice, fate, love, and hope in a way that a more traditional narrative would not.

In another pleasant break from usual period piece vibe we often expect from large-scale musicals, If/Then’s action is set firmly within the 21st century.  I love love love the elaborate design and set pieces of good old nostalgic musicals but, quite simply, it’s a nice a break to see a musical set in contemporary times. The costumes are understandably less spectacular a result, but they fit the sanitized yuppy vision of Manhattan with which we are presented. The set design, an array of urban construction columns and emergency exit-style walkways complemented by a staggered rear projection screen, is constantly rearranged to interesting and clever effect.

If anything, the music itself, while sturdy and accessible, fails to live up to the full promise of If/Then’s contemporary setting. The lyrics push an envelope here or there, particularly the morning-after regret song “What the F**k.”  But the musicality is fairly standard fare, that somewhat vanilla midpoint beyond between classical, acoustic rock, and the occasional ‘80s guitar riff to remind us that it’s “modern.” Coupled with fairly un-gritty presentation of New York, the resultant tone is a little too You’ve Got Mail for the show’s PG-13 aspirations.  It’s not bad, not at all. It’s just, you know, not bad.

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus Original Broadway Company

Still, the performances almost completely compensate for the less-than-special music. Lead actress Jackie Burns, who played Elpheba in Wicked on Broadway, gives an absolutely commanding vocal performance as Elizabeth; and theater-lovers’ favorite Anthony Rapp of Rent fame is exceptional in the multifaceted role of Lucas, whose bisexuality mainfests differently in each version of the story. (More conservative readers, take note. If/Then features a number of same sex relationships.) Former American Idol contestant Tamyra Gray adds some needed spunk as Elizabeth’s feisty best friend, and Matthew Hydzik is appealing and gracious in the slightly thankless role of Liz’s love interest.

If/Then is a satisfying experience, one whose narrative risks, excellent performances, and warm pop philosophy make for a solid theatrical experience. It doesn’t have quite enough modern edge or songwriting sparkle to enjoy the stratospheric success of more truly inventive efforts like Hamilton or Wicked, but as an enjoyable and gently offbeat addition to Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights lineup, it is an easy recommendation.

Catch If/Then at Belk Theater from July 19-24

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