Direct from Broadway, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and more from the original Broadway cast are taking IF/THEN across the nation and are currently at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for a “hurry before your too late” stint! My words will not accurately express the true power or talent that this show exemplifies. IF/THEN is able to capture the best in Menzel and deliver a breathtaking experience that can only be felt in person. Though, if you want to see this you only have until Sunday January 24th!
I was as giddy as girl in her twenties running into Justin Timberlake to see Idina Menzel perform live. Not so much that I gush over her, but because I understand the amazing talent she embodies and have loved much of her past work. Okay, full disclosure, I love RENT and have enjoyed WICKED, plus you can claim you hate “Let It Go” as much as you want… but admit the second time you heard it you wanted to belt it out just as loud as her. On top of that, Anthony Rapp (RENT, stage and film) plays opposite of her. So needless to say, I was a little hyped up and IF/THEN didn’t disappoint!
The entire show is incredibly engaging taking on two possible scenarios all based off one single event that takes place in a park. It’s not your average Broadway show and definitely tries to be a little different, just like other works from Director Michael Grief, who actually cast Menzel in her iconic role as Maureen in RENT. This however can create a convoluted, and sometimes challenging, story to follow. Fortunately Grief has been fortunate enough to have tremendous music and lyrics from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey who have all worked previously together on NEXT TO NORMAL.
IF/THEN follows a newly divorced 38-year-old urban planner, Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), who has moved back to New York City for a fresh start. The inciting incident starts quickly as Elizabeth is with her friends Kate (LaChanze), A lesbian kindergarten teach, and Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a city activists and former lover who sometimes swings the other way, in Madison Square Park. Whilst hanging with her friends there are two alternate scenarios that play out for Elizabeth. Kate suggests that “Liz” stays to listen to the musician in the park and ends up bumping into Josh (James Snyder), a corky military stud recently returned from duty. From here “Liz’s” life follows a life with Josh while the other scenario has Lucas suggest that she go by “Beth” and encourages her to answer a life-changing career phone call missing Josh all together.
Clearly by the synopsis alone you can see that it can be a bit difficult to follow. While I did hear from others before the show that it was tough for them, I never really had any problems keeping up with it. Of course having the distinction between Beth and Liz will help you follow, but ultimately it was the music that helped me. Definitely a strong suit of IF/THEN would not only be the crescendo of melody throughout the musical but also the crystal clear lyricism and creative staging.
I highly recommend listening to some music prior to viewing if possible. I always find that helps if you aren’t too familiar with a show, but also gives a sense of what to expect. With any quick listen you will hear how straight forward much of the music is yet somehow inventively unique and fluid. Many of the songs flow so well I felt it seemed easier to stay in tune to every lyric, which is not typical for many of the musicals. In fact, I felt that while the music is beautiful, the vocals are truly the star. It helps that I could clearly understand every word with better than normal sounding acoustics and perfect audio. This wont be a reason to go see a show alone, but it sure was appreciated and worth a mention.
Every performance seemed to be on point with nothing negatively standing out. The whole ensemble, which I’ll get into later, was fully engaging. Everyones voice seemed perfect for these untrained ears. As for Idina, my God, she blew the roof off. I was patiently waiting for my “Defying Gravity” moment and as I awaited with many close calls, it came with full steam. The prized possession of this show being “Always Starting Over” does not let down. I have NEVER gasped so hard for air after a single song in my life. The note seemed noticeably longer than that of the recorded version.
While getting to that point there will be a plethora of impressive solos and duets creatively done portraying the two different stories within in one song. “I Hate You” expressed so much emotion and the infamous “What the Fuck?” was so much more than expected in person. Yes, that is the name of one of the songs so here is your warning; IF/THEN contains a TON of explicit language. Consider yourself warned.
Given the very nature of the previous song title, the show has some hilarious moments throughout, but may make some crowds squeamish. It’s nowhere near the content of The Book of Morman so you have nothing to fear there.
There is something to be said about every character delivering exceptional performances. It’s a rarity, but it’s the professionalism and utter talent of this cast that made it possible. I quickly noted to myself that Menzel gives a performance that has something lacking to many other onstage musicals, incredible acting. She had impeccable comedic timing and was entirely convincing every moment. There was no sense of overacting here. Anthony Rapp was himself, I mean, I love this guy, but his performance wont seem much different if your mostly familiar with him in RENT. You kind of know what to expect.
I’m searching for some real critique so this seems legit, but my biggest grief was just some slowness in the second Act and some mindless songs that I didn’t care for. I’ll leave that for you to decide. It’s on the longer side, though I never found myself losing interest.
Staging was more abstract but inventive and different. It never feels cheap or lazy, but rather lets the actors be the focal point. There are quite a few quick costume changes to help switch from scene to scene and from scenario to scenario in which I found very entertaining.
Something to consider before you get hesitant on a show you may not know much about, this show is essentially the same as the Broadway show that recently played from just 2014 to March 2015. The four main actors and some other supporting cast were all apart of the original cast therefore you get to essentially see a Broadway show in its true form on the West Coast. While this is a national tour, it stays true to the original Broadway production opposed to many other traveling companies. PLUS, Idina Menzel’s last show with this tour is Sunday!
In fact, director David Stone has said that IF/THEN wouldn’t be touring if Idina didn’t choose to launch the tour. It’s been said that IF/THEN is believed to be the first musical of the modern Broadway era to have a national tour with all of its major principal cast assembled. That note alone should be reason enough to make it out. However, there is something profound knowing that you are watching a musical that not TOO many people have had the chance to see yet.
Even at the very end, after some emotional thoroughfares, the spotlight faded just after Menzel delivers a very deeply satisfying grateful smile and humbled look up to the audience with an ever so subtle sense of accomplishment of her performance. I may have been looking too much into this one particular moment, but it fit the ending to this emotional second half so well. I felt that Menzel was just happy that she has brought this show to another audience, or… she was just happy that it was over for that performance. Who knows, but I’ll believe the former.
IF/THEN is a strong show with a consistent flow and unchallenged talent. If delivers a powerful message and an important reminder to not focus on the “what ifs” and “if only’s”. It’s not a straight forward takeaway, and for that I’m grateful. It will still have you thinking, but I cannot imagine you leaving without saying “Wow!” Without any exaggerating, I didn’t hear one negative reaction while we slowly walked out of the theater.
It’s going to be quite the weekend at The Center with several events and a top-notch off-Broadway show that I hope I’ll get to see again someday. Segerstrom Center for the Arts may be a good stop this weekend if you’re looking for a nice evening out.
IF/THEN is playing until Sunday 1/24. Tickets are starting at $29.
More information is available at SCFTA.org.