TAMPA — I am feeling ambivalent about If/Then, which runs through the weekend at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. We are talking about an original musical that takes on a few big questions and tries to answer them. That is bold and commendable.
That the result teases and hints more than it delivers; that its characters are not especially believable; that it remains more of a cerebral exercise than the heart-twisting meditation on fate and love and passion it seemingly strives to be, makes seeing it either a confusing work-in-progress forced onto the stage or a perfectly respectable piece of art worth a lingering look. The ambivalent impressions it leaves behind stem not from its central premise, but the priorities embraced by Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book, in telling these twin stories.
Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt, two accomplished talents (they won a Pulitzer for Next to Normal), created If/Then from scratch. Elizabeth, an urban planning professor shaken by a divorce, has returned to New York from Arizona looking for a new start. Her first decision seems inconsequential but serves as an appointed fork in the road.
Like the opening song, What If?, this musical hinges on different directions a life can take from seemingly random choices. What if audiences could follow down each path of a simple choice and see where it leads?
Elizabeth's choices start in a park, where she has been listening to a concert. Either she leaves the park with Lucas, an annoyingly endearing (or endearingly annoying) activist played by Anthony Rapp, or stays behind with her friend Kate. Conveniently, the friends have just anointed her with different nicknames, half-jokingly symbolizing her new identity in New York.
Thus "Beth" goes to the protest with Lucas, just missing the chance to meet a handsome soldier who is drawn to her. She ends up taking an urban planning job with the city and finds success but also a rupture in her relationship with Lucas.
"Liz," meanwhile, meets the soldier (who turns out to be an Army surgeon, recently returned from the Middle East) and eventually accepts his invitations to go out. They marry and have two sons. On this foundation, the musical briskly hands off parallel lives every few minutes or so. This structure allows for some amusing contrasts. Beth, for example, attends a Yankees game with Stephen, her urban planning boss, while Liz goes to a Mets game with Josh, the surgeon.
But here's the thing. This is an intellectual exercise, a grand "What if?" Characters emerge to flesh out the premises, and songs to distinguish the characters.
Jackie Burns, who was Idina Menzel's understudy for Elizabeth on Broadway, absolutely delivers on the vocals created for a superstar. The show needed a powerhouse singer in the lead, and Burns is it. She does the best she can with the character, but character isn't a priority in this musical, except insofar as someone's choices advance a parlor-game thesis one way or another.
None of these relatively young, happy New Yorkers have any real flaws of a soul-vexing variety. They are all vaguely wonderful and must work hard even to distinguish themselves from one another. Rapp, known for originating the role of Mark in RENT on Broadway, largely succeeds as Lucas. Jacques C. Smith delivers a tepid Stephen and Matthew Hydzik sings a nice score and is pleasant looking as Josh. That's what we're talking about.
On the other hand, a song by Liz in the second act, I Hate You, full of grief and rumination, is brilliantly written and scored and sung and staged. So if you are considering seeing If/Then, you might consider walking through a museum.
It's not George Bernard Shaw. More like a painting in a gallery with some interesting features. You look at it, and admire its qualities and the skill it took to produce it. Then you move on.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.