Review: If/Then

Idina Menzel in If/Then
(©Joan Marcus)

When a performer’s mere opening utterance of “Hello, it’s me” garners huge sustained applause, you know you’re in the presence of a star. Such is the case with Idina Menzel, playing the lead role in If/Then, the new musical by Next to Normal creators Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book & lyrics). Depicting the intertwined tales of a woman whose life seems to spin off in vastly different directions, these award-winning writers never make either one particularly interesting.

Fortunately, Menzel--or “Adele Dazeem,” if you would take John Travolta’s word for it—is on hand to both anchor the proceedings and provide significant box-office appeal for this ambitious but perplexing show. Playing Elizabeth, alternately known as Beth or Liz depending on which character arc is being presented, the talented actress delivers a terrifically appealing and sympathetic turn marked by her trademark powerhouse vocals.

She’s certainly got a daunting assignment to fill in this head-scratcher which presumably seeks to address issues of identity and the precarious balance between personal and career ambitions. Here, the options are laid out in all too schematic fashion: In one storyline, Liz finds love, marriage and motherhood with the hunky and sensitive Josh (James Snyder, Cry-Baby), a war veteran doctor from Nebraska; in the other, Beth pursues a successful career as a city planner with the help of Stephen (Jerry Dixon), her graduate school mentor. Figuring prominently in the plot—excuse me, plots—are Kate (LaChanze), her lesbian neighbor; Kate’s girlfriend Anne (Jenn Colella); and Lucas (Anthony Rapp), Elizabeth’s bi-sexual longtime friend and community organizer with whom she once had a fling.

Despite the supposed tinkering of the book since the show’s Washington, D.C. engagement, audiences will be hard pressed to keep track of the dual plotlines which recall the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film Sliding Doors. Despite such visual cues as different lighting schemes and Menzel’s occasionally donning eyeglasses, the transitions are often confusing, with the chief distinguishing factor being that each of the character’s stories are equally banal.

Featuring one-dimensional supporting characters and the sort of arch, bitchy dialogue that passes for wit, the show panders to its audiences with low humor and frequent obscenity, most notably in Elizabeth’s plaintive number, “What the Fuck?”

The pop/rock score is superior to Kitt/Yorkey’s previous effort, featuring plenty of the sort of soaring power ballads to which Menzel lends her justifiably celebrated pipes. But with a few exceptions, such as the eleven o’ clock number “Always Starting Over,” little of it is particularly memorable.

Although director Michael Greif is unsuccessful in carefully delineating the dual plotlines in coherent fashion, he’s given the production a polished sheen that is also evident in Mark Wendland’s two-level set design representing urban fire escapes and Central Park’s verdant landscape and featuring a giant tilting mirror. Less felicitous is the uninspired choreography by Larry Kegwin which seems mostly employed to fill in the background.

Besides Menzel, who makes the most of her character’s dry humor and desperate search for identity, the supporting players deliver engaging, personality-fueled performances that go a long way towards making the proceedings bearable. But for all the considerable effort of everyone involved, the show never takes flight. It’s a particular shame since it’s one of the rare musicals on Broadway this season that’s not lazily derived from a familiar movie property. Unfortunately, ambition, as the show’s heroine would readily attest, doesn’t count for everything.

Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. 877-250-2929.