Powerful cast keeps If/Then from getting lost in time
When a musical is successful, it’s usually either because it has an abundance of unforgettable songs or because it has a strong story that just so happens to be propelled by songs. A very special few are able to succeed on both fronts, but those only come along once in a blue moon.
If/Then, whose national tour will play at Winspear Opera House through January 31, is one of those musicals that works based on the strength of its singers and plot, and not necessarily because you’ll be humming its tunes on the way out.
Set in New York City in the recent past, it’s a fanciful tale focused on Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), who has recently moved back to the city after a divorce. She meets two friends, one new (Kate, played by Tamyra Gray) and one old (Lucas, played by Anthony Rapp), and the story imagines two different timelines for her depending on whom she follows on one fateful day.
Follow Kate, and it takes her down a path where she calls herself Liz and she meets perhaps the love of her life, Josh (Matthew Hydzik), but at the expense of a promising job prospect. Follow Lucas, and she calls herself Beth and nabs that job as a city planner, but she also experiences multiple romantic missteps that leave her unfulfilled in her personal life.
The domino effects of both decisions reverberate in other ways, as the people around her also make different choices in their lives. These choices range from small to large, with the most momentous of them being one character switching sides with his sexuality. That is a curious decision since the other timeline doesn’t even hint at the character being gay. It’s also one of several plot machinations that do harm to the overall production.
However, the powerful singing of the cast mitigates that harm. Burns, taking over for original star Idina Menzel, is naturally given the majority of the big moments, especially in second act songs like “I Hate You” and “Always Starting Over” that showcase her amazing range.
But it’s her first act song, “What the Fuck?,” that truly sets the tone for the production, as it marks the point where the split timeline concept finally fully connects. Beth/Liz has encounters with different men at her apartment, and the rotating set, great choreography, and fun yet poignant lyrics of the song combine to realize the emotional stakes of the plot.
Former American Idol contestant Gray, taking over for original star LaChanze, gives Kate the right amount of spunkiness the character needs as well as the pipes to go toe-to-toe with Burns. Rapp, the lone holdover from the original Broadway production, shows why he’s had such a long theater career, bringing in humor and gravity when needed.
It’s unlikely that the soundtrack of If/Then will find its way into most people’s musical rotation, but the experience of seeing it performed live and in context makes it memorable as a whole. Don’t let this be a decision you’ll regret; see If/Then if you have the chance.