New York City: a mythical land where gang members pirouette through the projects, red-headed orphan girls roam free with their furry companions, and ordinary people feel energized enough to take the world by the balls. Such is the case with Elizabeth Vaughn, a woman on the verge of 40, who, in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's ambitious new musical If/Then, comes to the Big Apple looking for a new start.
An eminently relatable piece to anyone who has ever felt the burning desire to begin again, If/Then, now at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre, is possibly the first musical ever to explore the concept of parallel universes and the butterfly effect. How can one small change alter the course of a person's existence? In the style of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, Kitt and Yorkey present us with two versions of Elizabeth's life, both of which are played out by Tony winner Idina Menzel in a welcome return to Broadway after a very long decade. The resulting production has its flaws, no doubt, but it's far better than Michael Greif's distrusting direction lets on.
Elizabeth arrives in Manhattan from Phoenix, where she spent 10 years trapped in a loveless marriage. Newly divorced and looking for work, she befriends her neighbor Kate (LaChanze), a spunky lesbian kindergarten teacher, and reconnects with her one-time flame Lucas (Anthony Rapp). At the top of the show, they give her a choice: She can either take on the guise of Liz, who, says Kate, "moves to New York City to find her one true love" or Beth, who "lives alone with cats." Beth takes a job as a city planner and quickly rises through the ranks to become a powerful, albeit lonely, urban developer. Meanwhile Liz falls for a newly returned soldier named Josh (James Snyder) and becomes a teacher while raising a family.
It sounds and looks a lot more confusing than it actually is. Greif's staging, which uses a cavalcade of bells and whistles to try to distract us from material, ends up mostly getting in the way of the parallel stories. Kenneth Posner's lighting takes on a different color scheme for each storyline: peach for one, baby blue for the other. Mark Wendland's mammoth set is inexplicably dominated by a giant floating mirror, providing the audience with a bird's-eye view of the back of the actors' heads. It's great if you want to see the patterns in Larry Keigwin's frenetic choreography but not so good if you want to pay attention to the storyline.
And you should want to pay attention to the storyline, because Kitt and Yorkey are daring to experiment with the musical form — results be damned —in ways unexplored since Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's mold-breaking musical Company. The granddaddy of concept musicals is an apt comparison for the concept-driven If/Then for a variety of reasons, not merely limited to the New York City setting. Through text and song, Kitt and Yorkey psychoanalyze Liz, Beth, and their choices in the fashion that Sondheim and Furth analyzed their commitment-o-phobe central character, Robert. Similarly, the writers present us with an eccentric cast of New Yorkers, some of whom are too present and others who are not developed enough. We don't get to know Josh nearly as well as we should, and it's a shame, considering Snyder's beguiling take on the role. LaChanze and Rapp, both also returning to Broadway after prolonged absences, provide scene-stealing work in supporting roles, but are heard from perhaps a bit too often. Reliable players like Jerry Dixon (as Beth's boss), Jenn Colella (as Kate's girlfriend, Anne), and Jason Tam (as Lucas' boyfriend, David) do wonders with minuscule parts.
And what of Menzel, who was catapulted into the spotlight theater people knew she deserved when John Travolta mispronounced her name on the Oscars? Well, she's downright divine, sending Kitt and Yorkey's tailor-made score into the stratosphere — and wrapping her signature tart delivery around Yorkey's wry dialogue. Menzel doesn't always look comfortable, Emily Rebholz's dowdy costumes don't help, but she finds her way into the cipher that is Elizabeth and makes a mark so indelible that it brought many audience members at the reviewed performance to tears in the second act.
This second act is a dark three-sixty from the light, sunny attitude of the first, and Kitt and Yorkey, the team behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, prove once again their astuteness in observing the psychological ramifications of the decisions we make. Not all of the overlaps work — an attempt to match a tragedy in Liz's life with one in Beth's comes off as forced and out of place — but the score is generally pleasing, with a plethora of genuinely pretty character songs. Michael Starobin's orchestrations, on the other hand, are a bit too twinkly.
Still, despite the caveats, Kitt and Yorkey's exploration of "What if?" is sharper than many other pieces that plow the same territory. It's too bad the creative team doesn't trust its writers' intentions.