Friday, September 7, 2018

"If/Then" at Lyric Arts

2014 saw the Broadway premiere of a new original musical written by the creators of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal (Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt) for two of the original stars of the Pulitzer Prize-winning RENT (Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp). I went to see If/Then with super high expectations, which is probably why I was underwhelmed. It's not going to win a Pulitzer (few musicals do, only nine if you want to get nerdy about it), in fact it didn't even win a Tony. But the more I listen to the score and see the show (I also saw the national tour a few years ago), the more I like it. It may not be a brilliant musical, but it's a good one, and it's original, fresh, and modern, which is hard to come by these days. Lyric Arts in Anoka was lucky/smart enough to snag the regional premiere, and I'm quite impressed by what this little community(ish) theater in the 'burbs was able to do with this complex show. A solid cast (and one outright superstar in Kate Beahen), a clever design that captures the spirit of NYC, clear direction by Elena Giannetti, and interesting movement around the small stage bring out the best in this smart, funny, moving, and thought-provoking new original modern musical. I can't ask for much more than that.

Here's a brief plot summary, borrowed from what I wrote about the touring production a few years ago:

The Sliding Doors-esque plot follows Elizabeth, who has just left Pheonix and an unhappy marriage to start over in New York City. She's a pragmatical cat (a woman after my own heart) who believes in facts and data and analyzing all possibilities. But that strategy doesn't work as well in life as it does in urban planning, and based on one small choice, Elizabeth diverges into Liz, who meets a handsome army doc, gets married, has children, and teaches urban planning, and Beth, who has a successful and fulfilling career as a city planner and unsuccessful dalliances with her ex and her boss. While you can't easily change hairstyles on stage like you can in a movie, you can don a pair of glasses and subtly change wardrobe pieces to quickly and easily identify which Elizabeth we're watching. The two realities are cleverly and seamlessly woven together, making it easy to follow the storylines and see the parallels in the two lives. At the most powerful moments Liz and Beth merge into one beautifully flawed, strong, very real woman, as she grapples with the choices she's made and the life she's found herself in.

And here are ten reasons you should make the (really not that long) drive up to Anoka to see If/Then:
  1. Kate Beahen. I've long been a fan of Kate, who is the closest thing to Idina Menzel we have in #TCTheater (which isn't really fair because no one else is Idina, and no one else is Kate). But this is a perfect role for her and she lives up to the challenge in every way. She has a strong and effortless voice (listening to the cast recording on the way home, I thought, oh, I kind of like Kate's voice better than Idina's), she's natural and charismatic on stage, and she can make you laugh in Liz/Beth's awkward moments as quickly as she can rip your heart out in the emotional ones #bringtissues. Kate absolutely shines in this show, and this performance will tide me over until that far-off day when Wicked is available for regional productions and I can see her play Elphaba.
  2. The rest of the cast is pretty great too. I loved the new-to-me Elinor Strandskov and Jacleen Olson as Liz/Beth's lesbian couple friends; both have strong voices and a great stage presence. Austin Lewis is charming with a lovely voice as Liz/Beth's army doc husband, and Carl Swanson is funny and natural as Liz/Beth's bisexual ex (aka the Anthony Rapp role). The huge ensemble (there are close to 20 people on stage) do a great job in multiple roles, filling out the character of the city, and filling the space with interesting movement like beautifully organized chaos (choreography by Mathias Anderson).
  3. I heart NYC. And so does this show. The songs are full of NYC references, and the unique and complex beauty of the city. The set (designed by Brian Proball) puts you right in the city with the Brooklyn Bridge creating a second level, and the 2D skyscrapers on either side of the stage upon which images from the city are projected.
  4. Rather than set in some long-ago past that doesn't have much to do with today, this is a modern musical. The characters speak, think, and act like we do, and face modern challenges. e.g., the story features not one but two same-sex relationships, and a song called "What the F**k" (you go Lyric!).
  5. The catchy and clever score is reminiscent of Next to Normal at times, and well performed by the ensemble and six-person off-stage orchestra led by music director Mary Cay Stone
  6. Support Lyric in their season of women. Writes Artistic Director Laura Tahja Johnson in the program, "This season is filled with strong women - including multi-faceted female protagonists, works by female playwrights, adaptations of books by female authors, and productions with artistic staffs predominately led by female directors, music directors, and choreographers." This show features a "multi-faceted female protagonist" who is concerned about more than just finding a man (although that's part of her journey, but only part), as well as female stage and music directors.
  7. Tickets are way cheaper and more available than Hamilton, and the crowds are much thinner in charming downtown Anoka.
  8. Take a chance on a new musical. It's not Guys and Dolls, which Lyric did this summer and it was very fun. But I've seen Guys and Dolls many times before, and you probably have too. Unless you went to NYC in 2014 or caught the tour that was here for a week in 2016, you haven't seen this musical before, and likely won't have another chance for a while 
  9. Contemplate how you got to where you are in life, and how things could have been different if you had made a different choice or gone down a different path (literally or figuratively). Our lives are a combination of choices and chance, and what we make of them.
  10. Did I mention Kate Beahen? She should count for two reasons because she plays two characters, or maybe two sides of the same character, and her performance is worth the price of admission alone. Seriously, she's a superstar.
There you have it. A new original musical created by and for people with serious musical theater credentials, making its regional premiere in Anoka. Lyric Arts took a big chance with this one and it's paid off in an engaging, entertaining, funny, emotional musical. If/Then officially opens tonight and continues through September 23.