Thursday, August 4, 2016

Theater Review: IF/THEN -- The Bushnell

The cast of If/Then. Photo: Joan Marcus
If You Like Belter Idina Menzel/Then Go See Her Clone at the Bushnell
By Lauren Yarger
Connecticut native and UConn alum Jackie Burns is belting out the Bushnell and bringing down the house in the tour of Tom Kit and Brian Yorkey’s musical IF/THEN.

Burns understudied the role of Elizabeth, a woman who wonders how her life might have turned out if she had done things differently, on Broadway for star Idina Menzel. She kind of puts us in mind of her, with striking good looks and long brown hair. She certainly sounds like her. That should come as no surprise – Burns also played the role of Elphaba in Wicked both on tour and on Broadway, the role for which Menzel won a Tony and the hearts of teen girls everywhere.

Anyone who is a fan of Elphaba (or Menzel) knows that some seemingly impossible belting is required. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kitt, who won a Pulitzer Prize with lyricist and book writer Yorkey for Next to Normal, which is its own belt fest, wrote this show with the actress in mind to sing it (she did the developmental lab and out-of-town tryout with Director Michael Greif before the show moved to Broadway.) When it closed on Broadway, Menzel went on tour with the show and when she stepped out, Burns stepped in.

Anthony Rapp (who got his Broadway break with Menzel in RENT) also reprises his role as Lucas for this tour. In addition, Tamyra Gray and Matthew Hydzik, who also stepped into their roles on Broadway,  also are in the cast. The result is one of the best tour productions I have seen since the 25th anniversary tour of Les Miserables which went on to Broadway (where it continues through Sept. 4) .

Burns brings down the house with ballad after rafter-shaking ballad. (Connecticut theater goers might remember her from her CT Repertory days in Candide, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Trojan Woman, Smokey Joe’s CafĂ©, Sweeney Todd or others.) Rapp, Hydzik and Gray, best known as one of the Top-Four finalists of the first season of “American Idol,” lend their strong voices too for our listening pleasure.

The story focuses on Elizabeth, who moves back to New York after a divorce from the husband she had put before her career and followed to Phoenix more than a decade ago. She reunites with old friend Lucas, a housing activist who might be carrying a torch for her. She makes new friends in Kate, a spirited kindergarten teacher and her partner, Anne (Janine Divita). It’s the beginning of a whole new life for Elizabeth, but she isn’t certain which path to take. Lucas christens her Beth and urges her to get back to her activist roots. Kate feels Liz would be a better nickname for a sexy woman looking for new adventure.

What happens next, though is the premise of the IF/THEN. Her phone rings. In one scenario Beth answers it and is offered a city planning job by old acquaintance Stephen (Jacques C. Smith), who also might still have a thing for her. In another, Liz ignores the call to listen to some music in the park and meets Josh (Hydzik), a doctor returning from his tours of duty in the Middle East. She falls in love, gets married and has kids, but once again puts her career on a back burner.

Her friends also find themselves living different lives as a result of her choices. In Beth’s life, Lucas is the father of her child (she never met Josh). In Liz’s life, Lucas ends up happily partnered with Josh’s friend David (Marc Delacruz). In one life, Anne and Kate end up divorced; in the other, they reconcile. In a common intersection for both lives involving flight on a plane, Elizabeth reflects, in both lives, on the choices she has made.

It’s an interesting concept with the obvious questions about what role fate plays in our lives and how one simple decision, like ignoring a phone call, can change the course of our lives forever. The two plots, unfortunately,  become a bit difficult to follow with the jumps between the two lives not always apparent. That said, the tour seems to make this happen better than the Broadway version which was entirely confusing and lacking direction for most of its two hours and 40 minutes.

The songs, while offering a showcase to the singers, start sounding the same after a while and ultimately we get tired of all the shouting. Fortunately this tour has someone who is able to belt like Menzel, but I shudder to think of a production with someone not up to the task (most community theater groups should probably pass on this one If/When the rights are available to produce it).

The action takes place on a sparsely decorated set (designed by Mark Wendland) where wooden frames are rearranged to create living spaces and offices, and where a few umbrellas and tables and chairs effectively create a park. Projections in the background provide images of buildings and streets in New York. Choreography by Larry Keigwin is minimal (it would be out of place in this particular story for sudden large dance numbers).

Even if the show could use some edits, it is a pleasure to see it in somewhat better shape than it was in New York. Don’t miss a chance to hear Burns and the rest of these excellent voices. You’ll brush the dust that was shaken from the rafters out of your hair and be glad you did.

IF/THEN plays a short run through Sunday at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday: 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday 1 and 6:30 pm Tickets $29.50-$89.50:; (860) 987-5900.

Additional casting:

English Bernhardt…. Paulette And Others
Corey Greenan…. Deputy Mayor, Others
Deedee Magno Hall…. Cathy, Others
Charissa Bertels,  Xavier Cano, Trey Ellett, Kyra Faith, Cliffton Hall, Tyler Mcgee,  Joseph Morales, Emily Rogers, Alicia Taylor Tomasko…. Ensemble

Associate Choreography by Mark Myars, Music Direction by Carmel Dean, Orchestrations by Michael Starobin, Vocal arrangements by Annmarie Milazzo, Costume design by Emily Rebholz, Wig and Hair Design by David Brian Brown, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, Sound Design by Brian Ronan.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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