‘If/Then’ At The Pantages Leaves No Room For Second-Guessing
We all ask it — what if I hadn’t taken that job, chosen that school, said hello to that guy or girl? Would my life be different? Better? Worse?
“If/Then,” the new musical from the creative team behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” takes this as its central theme. The show is currently making its Los Angeles premiere at the Hollywood Pantages with most of the original Broadway cast in tow, including Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp.
“If/Then” follows Elizabeth (Idina Menzel), who, after an unfulfilling decade of marriage, moves back to New York City to start over. Reconnecting with friends in the park, her life diverges on two separate pathways. As Liz, she stays in the park with her friend Kate (LaChanze) and meets a dashing new romantic prospect, army doctor Josh (James Snyder). As Beth, she leaves with college friend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) and finds herself swept into a dream job as a city planner.
Initially, it seems as if Liz’s path will bring her personal fulfillment in her relationship with Josh, while Beth will find solace in her professional life. But the show is too smart to reduce itself to a conversation about the merits of personal and professional female happiness. For both Liz and Beth, their lives become increasingly complicated, as the path they choose hits unexpected road bumps. And in both, destiny intervenes to bring them to similar ends. It never gives us the chance to ask, which set of choices, which life, is better? They are equally joyous and difficult, equally full of tragedy and triumph, and equally full of second chances.
It is refreshing to see a messy, authentic woman at the heart of a musical, especially when the show is not about her quest for romantic fulfillment with a man, but instead about our choices and what they mean to us. In a world that often denies women agency, particularly in storytelling, it is moving to find a musical where female choices, wants, triumphs, and regrets drive the plot. She is a woman who second-guesses herself, but she is not weak, merely human, in her doubt.
“If/Then” showcases a winning, Tony-nominated score crafted with lush melodies and witty wordplay. Many of the musical numbers, such as “What If?,” “What the Fuck?,” and “You Learn to Live Without,” depend on the vagaries of language and inflection. Intonation, emphasis, and context greatly alter the meaning of these quips, and the songs play off of this. In “What the Fuck?,” Liz/Beth uses the title phrase to lyrically wander from “why not?” to “what the hell is up with him?” to “what’s wrong with me and how did I get here?” Lyrically and structurally, the songs mirror the show’s themes in that, like Liz/Beth, they try out different paths and meanings through the course of a song. This use of song structure to echo core themes sets the score apart. Add sweeping melodies, memorable refrains, and a cast jam-packed with astounding vocal talent, and it’s a recipe for music and lyrics that resonates in your bones.
Idina Menzel worked with the creative team for several years to develop the show, and she is a tour-de-force in the role. With “Rent,” “Wicked,” and the film Frozen, Menzel has entered the pantheon of contemporary Broadway divas alongside the likes of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Audra McDonald. Seeing her perform live is breathing rarefied air.
She brings her heart and soul to Liz/Beth, imbuing her with a visceral ache to find assurance that she’s on the right path. She flits from the flickers of early romance to righteous anger to the depths of grief and regret, and everywhere in between, sometimes in a single song. We see her playfulness and lyric agility on “What the Fuck?” and her deep wells of strength in “No More Wasted Time.” But it’s her second-act showstopper, “Always Starting Over,” that brings the house down. It’s a showcase for her vocal prowess and power, sung with a ferocity that sends chills down your spine. As she belts the last notes, it is a struggle to resist jumping to your feet in thunderous applause.
Menzel is joined by original Broadway cast members Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, and LaChanze, all of whom also give stellar performances. LaChanze plays Kate with a mischievous glimmer, and her voice is another to be reckoned with. Snyder is the perfect romantic lead — an All-American hunk with a singing voice to match. The audience can’t help but fall in love with his earnest Josh as quickly as Liz does.
Then there’s Anthony Rapp — for any musical theater devotee, it’s a rare treat to see him alongside Menzel on stage. They launched their careers opposite each other as Mark and Maureen in “Rent,” and it’s a delight to see them in characters that grant the opportunity for some role reversal. In opposition to the gentle Mark and feisty Maureen, here Lucas (Rapp) is a political agitator for housing rights (protesting gentrification and high rent), while Beth is the observer and voice of reason.
Rapp is a subtle performer, always carrying a deeper hurt beneath the surface of his characters, which he lends to both iterations of Lucas. He glides through the lyrical obstacle course of “Ain’t No Man Manhattan” and similarly delivers all of his songs with precision and sterling vocals. He is most touching in his unrequited love for Liz/Beth, showcased in “You Don’t Need to Love Me.” The song is heartbreaking — his voice is edged with pain and longing throughout, singing words that countless hopeless romantics have wished or thought about one-sided love affairs.
The show raises questions about our values, our choices, second chances, the role of fate, and the inevitability and futility of regret. It asks whether when presented with the same choices, knowing what would happen, we would choose the same path. And above all, it reminds us that we derive meaning in our lives from love — love of our friends, love of our job, romantic love, parental love, any and all in between. In the face of the question of “What if?”, love is the only thing that matters.
Lucas says, “You only have one life, and you let the rest go.” In it, you can hear the echoes of Menzel and Rapp singing “Rent”’s mantra “Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.” The show begins with the premise of constantly questioning the road not taken, but it ends on a hopeful note. Don’t bother to ask “what if?” — regardless of the choices you make, life will be messy, unfair, joyous, and the only one you’ve got.
If/Then is playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theater (6233 Hollywood Boulevard) through January 3rd, 2016. Tickets start at $35. For more information, visit www.HollywoodPantages.com/IfThen
To contact staff writer Maureen Lee Lenker, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @maureenlee89