Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
If a person made one choice differently, then their life could be entirely different. That is the premise behind If/Then, the 2014 musical that is currently playing in Toronto as part of the Mirvish theatre season.
The show’s central character is Elizabeth, a woman in her late thirties who moves back to New York City after spending ten years in Phoenix with her ex-husband. In the opening song, she is faced with a simple decision: go to a concert with one friend, or a protest with another. The story follows “Liz” along one path, and “Beth” along another, unraveling the unforeseeable consequences of that one little choice.
The premise is interesting and the execution clever, with careful blocking and well-designed sets allowing for quick changes and occasional intersections between the two paths. But if you are thinking that this simultaneous storytelling could be confusing, you are correct. I never lost the two intertwined threads of the story, but I felt that I was actively trying to keep them straight, rather than sitting back and allowing myself to be lost in the story.
This story is, of course, told through music – music that was clearly written for the original Elizabeth, Idina Menzel. The Broadway queen, known best for originating the roles of Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked, has a very powerful and very specific voice. It is apparent from the opening number that If/Then was written for that voice. Menzel’s replacement, Jackie Burns, looks and sounds a great deal like her, but did not, at first, match Menzel’s power and range. By the end, however, I was blown away by Burns’ talent, and could easily picture her belting out the final note of “Defying Gravity,” as indeed she did on Broadway in 2011.
Perhaps Burns simply had a rocky start that night, but I think my change of opinion can also be put down to the unevenness of the songs. A few songs are catchy, funny, impressive, or powerfully emotional, but others fall flat.
The same can be said of the plot. Parts are funny, powerful, devastating, or realistic; others are tired, uninspiring, or ungrounded in reality. For example, as a young 20-something embarking on adulthood and professional life, I identified completely with the terrifying prospect of the impact that small decisions can have on your future–so many of the characters’ struggles and conversations struck remarkably close to home. On the other hand, these struggles often felt like they should be in the lives of 20-somethings, and I had to remind myself that the characters were, in fact, in their late thirties.
The largest problem with the plot is the through-line: in one life, Beth gets her dream job; in the other, she meets her dream man. Both events happen entirely at random and with little-to-no effort on Elizabeth’s part. Neither of these dreams works out perfectly for her, but the random ease with which they begin is completely at odds with the usual pattern of real life.
In this play, “dream relationship” and “dream job” are also completely divided from each other. This exclusivity is puzzling in a show that is otherwise incredibly–almost distractingly–liberal. For example, Elizabeth’s best friends are a lesbian teacher who rails against patriarchy and chauvinism, singing a whole song about the lack of women in kindergarten history books; and a bisexual housing activist (played by Anthony Rapp, who might as well be back in Rent) who accuses Beth of selling out when she goes to work for the city. Yet the central couple is two straight, white people. And the story still suggests that a woman can’t have both a family and a great job. I think the writers were genuinely trying to deal with tough questions, like how to balance home life and work life, but while they ask interesting questions, their answers are concerning to this millennial feminist.
Despite all of these issues, this play has some powerful moments, especially in the second act. I left the theatre humming the score and pondering questions of life, love, work, and everyday choices. I am glad to have seen If/Then, but can’t help thinking that if the creators had made a few decisions differently, then their show could have been great.
News You Can Use
What: If/Then, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, directed by Michael Greif
Who: Audiences 15 years and older (includes swearing and mature themes)
When: On stage now, until May 8th, 2016
Where: Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto, ON
For information and tickets: www.mirvish.com/shows/ifthen
© 2016 Natalie Dewan, Sesaya