Broadway in Boston's "If/Then": Door #1/Door #2

Anthony Rapp & Jackie Burns in "If/Then"
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The most charged words in the English language might well be, “what if?”, as in, what if we had made other choices than the ones we made. How different might our lives have been? The 2014 Broadway musical If/Then answered that question with several possible answers. With Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey and Music by Tom Kitt (the duo responsible for the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal), it was a star vehicle for Idina Menzel. It garnered two Tony Award nominations (for Best Musical and Best Lead Actress for Menzel) and had a respectable run of over four hundred performances. It's now on a national tour, arriving at Boston's Opera House for a run from July 5 to 17, with Jackie Burns in the lead role of Elizabeth. It's to her credit that the score seems to have been written specifically for her, and no coincidence that she was nominated for an IRNE Award for portraying Elphaba in Wicked, another Menzel role. But as much of a star turn that Burns' performance was, it's only one memorable part of a fine production, which comes along just when we needed it most. Given the recent tragic event in Orlando, it's a timely reminder that, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda at this season's Tony Awards, “love is love is love is love is love.....and love cannot be killed or swept aside”. The love enacted in this play includes two gay couples whose lives are affected by the choices made by their mutual friend Elizabeth, an example of how uplifting theater can be, and how life-affirming.

Make that lives affirming, as it centers around the two very different lives Elizabeth could have had, based on a simple choice. This may be the most existential musical in recent history, a story about what happens, or not, based on such choices, as well as by chance. Elizabeth , a recently divorced urban planner nearing her fortieth birthday, moves back to New York City to make a fresh start. She runs into old schoolmate Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a community organizer, and Kate (Tamyra Gray), a kindergarten teacher. Lucas urges her to change her name to Beth; Kate suggests she adopt the name Liz. At this point in the play, “Beth” leaves with Lucas and “Liz” stays with Kate. Thus begin the two tracks that play out, each dependent on which choice Elizabeth finally makes. Without revealing too many spoilers, here is a synopsis of the parallel plots.

As Liz, she's pursued by Josh (Matthew Hydzik),             As Beth, she accompanies Lucas to a protest
a member of the army reserves, whom she meets             over a development project, which she is asked
when she decides to remain in the park with Kate            to oversee at the moment she answers that
and Kate's girlfriend Anne (Janine Divita). Liz                 phone call.  She also has a one-night stand with
doesn't answer a call she gets on her cell phone.               Lucas and becomes pregnant but doesn't tell
An old friend Stephen (Jacques C. Smith) gets                him.  He exits her life for two years.  Meanwhile
her a teaching position. He introduces Lucas to               she earns multiple awards for her work and
his best friend David (Marc Delacruz) and they              Lucas becomes a noted activist.  Beth takes on a
become a couple, even adopting a son. Things               protégé Elena (Kyra Faith), who finally
also get serious for Liz and Josh, leading to                   disappoints her when she leaves the job to have  
pregnancy, marriage and a family. Kate and                  have a family.  After a near catastrophe, Beth is
Anne also marry. After a catastrophe, Liz                      compelled to reestablish contact with Lucas.
leaves her teaching work, despondent. Asked                Stephen offers her a position working with him,
to join Stephen in a project, she accepts and                  but she turns him down, planning to run for city 
looks forward to a promising career.                              council.
Elizabeth meets Kate and Lucas in the park for coffee, where Josh, returning home from his third tour of duty overseas, offers to buy her coffee and she accepts. Both of the stories take Elizabeth, as Liz and as Beth, along somewhat similar yet strikingly different paths, and the exposition of both lives is frequently fascinating (though it must be said that city planner and community organizer are not sexy jobs, and theatrically rather dull). It's best that one not examine too closely the specifics of the results of the two potential choices, as it should be obvious that Elizabeth's personal dilemmas wouldn't really affect the lives of others to the extent that they do in the script. Just go with the flow, and you'll find this a very thought-provoking and ingenious examination of the consequences of the choices we all must make and the role of chance in our lives. The success of the storytelling is largely dependent on the expertise of the cast, and here the ensemble doesn't disappoint. As brilliantly directed by Michael Greif, with outstanding Choreography by Larry Keigwin, this is a winning effort all around, from the Set Design by Mark Wendland to the Costume Design by Emily Rebholz to the Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and the Sound Design by Brian Ronan. The projections are terrific; New York City has never looked so good. The score, while it may not be quite on a par with that of Next to Normal, is a keeper, an almost through composed (thus virtually operatic) piece. As noted, Burns is up to the huge demands the role makes, as is Rapp (of Rent fame), a member of the original cast who has grown in his role. Gray and Hydzik offer great support, as do the remaining members of this cast.

This is a prime example of the level of professionalism of many national touring productions these days. It's as far from cookie-cutter shows as it gets. Instead, it's a very clever, original piece, beautifully performed. Catch it while you can; the choice is yours.

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