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Menzel shines but 'If/Then' too sloppy

  • This image released by Polk and Co. shows Idina Menzel, left, and James Snyder during a performance of "If/Then," at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Polk and Co., Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK: The new musical "If/Then" is all about imagining different scenarios, so let's get straight to it: If you love Idina Menzel, then go see it - she tears the rafters off the theater while going through a mid-life crisis. But if you like smooth, tight shows, then find something else to do.

An uneven - maybe not completely finished - show opened Sunday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with an intriguing, ambitious premise and a leading lady with a shockingly good voice, but a clumsy story and too few impressive songs.

At one point in a recent preview, a pair of discarded socks from a previous scene sat on the stage forlornly as the musical trundled on, a sign that it lacks a certain seasoning despite a pre-Broadway stop in Washington, D.C.

Tom Kitt supplies the music, Brian Yorkey wrote the story and lyrics, and Michael Greif directs. All three did the same jobs for "Next to Normal." The message this time is universal and not that surprising: Individual decisions have consequences. Like choosing this show instead of a night in front of "The Good Wife."

Menzel stars as Elizabeth, an urban planner who arrives in New York City in her late 30s after a failed marriage. She ends up leading parallel lives as two women - Beth and Liz - as fate and circumstances change, like a musical version of "Sliding Doors." To tell the heroines apart, Menzel wears glasses as one of them, like Clark Kent.

This also is a show about New York City and its changing face, a metaphor for Elizabeth's twin rebuilding projects. But there's a shockingly large amount of blather about low-income housing units, daily park usage and West Side reclamation projects. (One character virtually screams: "We can rezone over 1,000 city blocks in the next three years!") This is clearly a musical urban theorist Jane Jacobs would have loved. It may be the first Broadway show that uses a siteline level on a tripod.

But if the show is all about New York and cities, then why did it sound so smaltzy, smooth jazzy and sleepy? No gritty guitar or big beats? Not even a little hip-hop for a show that celebrates an urban landscape?

Speaking about landscapes, what's with the huge, rotating mirror courtesy of set designer Mark Wendland? Wasn't the spinning stage, wondrous trees and bifurcating scaffolding enough? The mirror really just gave us all a super view of Anthony Rapp's skull.

Yes, the always-welcome Rapp is reunited with his old "Rent" co-star Menzel. Seeing the pair go from that show set in the gritty drug- and AIDS-plagued East Village to a corporate mayoral office in "If/Then" is a funny subtext.

Rapp does well as Elizabeth's apparently bisexual best friend - he is her wannabe lover in one scenario, and a gay man in another - but the inherent dramatic tension between his urban organizer and her urban planner is mostly just abandoned. Also abandoned: LaChanze, who bursts out of the gate with verve and soul only to wither in Act 2, undeveloped and left as a mere accessory.

The tonal difference between the two acts is striking. A whimsical comedy in the first is taken over by a series of tragedies and sadness. One of the best crafted scenes and songs - "The Moment Explodes" - will brings gasps, and not just because it's a bit too manipulative. It's set on a plane in trouble. Sometimes, real tragedies intrude on Broadway.

Kitt is always best with Menzel singing. There's the touching duet with herself in "You Learn to Live Without." And the furious "Always Starting Over" has the singer just prowling the stage in agony against a starry sky. Her - unprintable here - regret song also is funny. But too many songs lack punch, like the unfortunately titled "Ain't No Man Manhattan" and "Hey, Kid," a new father's lullaby to his son that has so much promise but lands flat.

Lyricist and book writer Yorkey seems to think that tossing in casual expletives is coolly edgy - he actually gets more laughs with poop jokes - and he really doesn't impress by rhyming "schmuck" and "suck" or penning these lines for Beth: "Some other me is homeless/Some other me is queen." Making fun of Arizona and Brooklyn, though, gets big chuckles.

Larry Keigwin's choreography is simply unfinished, as if he was a kitchen contractor called away midway through a renovation. A few half twists and some lame jumping around from the cast is all we have.

Credit goes for attempting to explore parallel lives onstage and the acting is great. But a show with so much potential is marred by poor editing. So, the overall answer is, if you really, really need to see and hear Menzel, then go and watch an actress wonderfully giving it her all. But if you're of two minds, then go see "Frozen" and just listen to her voice.

 
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Summary

NEW YORK: The new musical "If/Then" is all about imagining different scenarios, so let's get straight to it: If you love Idina Menzel, then go see it -- she tears the rafters off the theater while going through a mid-life crisis.

At one point in a recent preview, a pair of discarded socks from a previous scene sat on the stage forlornly as the musical trundled on, a sign that it lacks a certain seasoning despite a pre-Broadway stop in Washington, D.C.

Like choosing this show instead of a night in front of "The Good Wife".

Menzel stars as Elizabeth, an urban planner who arrives in New York City in her late 30s after a failed marriage.

To tell the heroines apart, Menzel wears glasses as one of them, like Clark Kent.

Not even a little hip-hop for a show that celebrates an urban landscape?

Yes, the always-welcome Rapp is reunited with his old "Rent" co-star Menzel.

Kitt is always best with Menzel singing.

So, the overall answer is, if you really, really need to see and hear Menzel, then go and watch an actress wonderfully giving it her all.


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