Idina Menzel is a throwback: a Broadway star who has crossed over to the mainstream. By dint of fortune (Frozen) and flub (Oscars, John Travolta), she has had a Top Five hit in the US with “Let It Go”, a feat rarely accomplished by a Broadway-launched diva. The title of composer Tom Kitt and book writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey’s new musical provides the formula for the key question concerning the roasting-hot Menzel’s latest project: if her stardom is enough to attract bums to seats, then is it also sufficient to make us overlook the weaknesses in the show’s structure?
Not quite, though patrons of the Broadway musical probably won’t mind. For them, If/Then’s propulsive light-rock ballads, wry humour and hopeful tone, even amid grief, should suffice to override the cliché-ridden situations.
The two-act evening has been directed by Michael Greif, and been afforded a tilting-mirror, urban-wonderland set by Mark Wendland. Greif worked with
Menzel on the sensational musical Rent, whose picture of an Aids-afflicted Manhattan of the 1980s has given way to the sanitised New York of If/Then.
The story’s two tracks, reminiscent of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, are not always clearly demarcated, even when the creative team work hard to consciously uncouple them. Elizabeth, a newly divorced, 39-year-old urban planner portrayed by Menzel, returns to New York after a 12-year absence. In one narrative strand, the character is “Beth”. She goes off with a university friend, bisexual housing activist Lucas, to protest against a waterfront development project. She gains a planning job with the city, and misses a meeting with the handsome Josh, a surgeon who is just back from an army deployment. In the other strand, she is “Liz”, who goes off with Kate, a teacher, to hear some music. Liz re-encounters Josh, and they mate.
To help us keep the stories separate, the show bathes Liz’s scenes in red and Beth’s scenes in blue. But if we know where we are parallel-plot-wise, we don’t always know where are in terms of emotional specificity. We don’t gain the succession of detail that would help deliver a big emotional pay-off.
Menzel, whose upper register is starting to strain, is left to her own devices to power such ballads as the climactic, big-theme-encapsulating “Always Starting Over”. She does so with a star’s charisma, and she brings delight to some of her line readings. But neither she nor her able colleagues – Anthony Rapp is an appealing Lucas, LaChanze a winningly self-assured Kate – can satisfyingly put over a story of tepid emotional ambivalence.