On Stage: Finding One’s Way

REVIEW: Broadway-bound ‘If/Then’ explores what could have been, and may still be.

Idina Menzel and xxxxxxxx

and Anthony Rapp in ‘If/Then.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There is a reason for testing new dramas or musicals out of town before the ultimate opening on Broadway. and ’s new musical “If/Then,” now having a pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre, isn’t ready for prime time. At nearly three hours, it’s too long and the star, the wonderful Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel, for all her star power, isn’t strong enough to carry the show.

The production, several days past its opening, will undoubtedly be changed. It had better be, since some $10 million has been invested with the expectation that it is going to be a hit, but a number of changes will be necessary.

The book is too complicated in developing the idea of choices, hence the title “If/Then,” as to what if? And then? It is not unique to question what if? That is a common enough theme in literature and in movies. Since it is almost Christmas, think of the perennial “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But in “If/Then,” the switching back and forth between the possibilities has not been adequately worked out.

Menzel portrays Elizabeth, who comes to New York after a divorce and several years living in Phoenix looking for a new life and new possibilities. But there are too many possibilities. In one confusing incidence Elizabeth goes to bed with one man and in an abrupt scene change wakes up with a different man. After a couple of moments there is an “Oh! I get it.”

The men she gets together with — or doesn’t — are significantly different. One is a soldier on leave about to return to a combat zone; the other an old college friend, a cliché as a left-leaning, protesting liberal. Just to confuse things a bit more, she decides to have an affair with her married boss. She has children and she doesn’t have children and her soldier gets killed or doesn’t and there is a plane crash … but you get the idea, or you don’t.

Menzel has a towering presence and a powerful voice, but the has a troubling sameness. Too often Menzel sings a series of loud anthems. She sings them well and her strong voice bounces off the walls of the National Theatre, but she deserves a better variety of numbers. As for the choreography, it seems generally non-existent. It isn’t what one might call dance.

’s set design is impressive — a multilevel arrangement with a slanted, reflective ceiling that gives the audience a unique perspective of the action. One part has an upper level of trees and stylized fire escapes. The lower is a park/café setting. It is in itself a significant cast member that makes many of the complex changes flow more smoothly.

It is also important to point out that the cast is strong with exceptional, effective voices. It must be difficult to make the show work, since it has undoubtedly faced late-night rehearsals and constant editing to fix some of the more obvious problems.

This is the first time in years that a company has tried out a Broadway-bound production in Washington. Generally what arrives are productions that have stood the test of out-of-town tryouts and months or years of Broadway success. They are anticipated and familiar. It is worthwhile, however, to see if a production like “If/Then” may eventually work even with all its problems, and then become a hit. Or not.

If/Then” continues through Dec. 8, 2013 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, $53, at 800-514-3849 and online here.

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