Playwright and lyricist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt have turned self-reflective self-disclosure into a musical theater art form of sorts, first with their 2008 Tony Award-winning “Next to Normal” – a dark and vivid portrait of manic-depression – and later, in 2014, with “If/Then,” which is currently on stage at Lakeland Civic Theatre.
In “If/Then,” we meet 38-year-old Elizabeth (Sandra Emerick), a newly divorced urban planner who has a tendency to make the wrong choices, second-guess herself by wondering “what if?” and do so through exposition-heavy anthems and frequent, often homogeneous power ballads.
When the play opens, Elizabeth is meeting up with new friend Kate (Braelin Andrzejewski) and her girlfriend Anne (Delaney Hagy), who insist that she reinvent herself now that she has moved to New York City and go by “Liz” as a sign of her new free-wheeling attitude.
She also runs into her old bisexual boyfriend Lucas (Michael Knobloch), a social activist, who recalls her drive and passion and suggests that she go back to her no-nonsense college nickname, "Beth," and start making professional connections in the city.
Elizabeth has an important life-altering decision to make: carouse as Liz or build a career as Beth. Rather than address Elizabeth's existential mid-life crisis head-on, this musical explores the parallel paths of both Liz and Beth in alternating scenes to see how each plays out. Think “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but with dance breaks.
As Liz, Elizabeth drinks single-barrel bourbon and marries Josh (Michael Snider), a trauma doctor who has recently returned from a tour of duty in the Army reserves, and becomes a caring and devoted mother and teacher. As Beth, who drinks single-malt scotch, she becomes a calculating, high-powered city planner under the tutelage of married but interested mover-and-shaker Stephen (Todd Cooper). The thing is that neither version of Elizabeth’s life is particularly compelling and both impact adversely on those around her (including Jacqueline DiFrangia as colleague Elana and Nick Nribar as friend David).
The moderate success of this musical on Broadway and on the first leg of its national tour was due largely to the Tony Award-winning powerhouse Idina Menzel, for whom the role of Elizabeth was written. And she was surrounded by an ensemble of triple-threat performers who were given innovative modern dance choreography to simulate the fast-paced lifestyle of young New Yorkers and who performed on an ultra-contemporary, color-saturated stage against a backdrop of beautifully conceived and highly kinetic digital animation.
The Lakeland Civic Theatre staging is understandably lacking in these expensive production elements, opting instead for designer Trad A Burns to surround the stage with walls comprised of glass shards. While they effectively represent the shattering of Elizabeth’s timeline continuum, their static construction sucks much of the vibrancy out of this musical. So too does Katie Gibson’s limited and lackluster choreography, which leaves the small ensemble of New Yorkers moving about as if they were from New Jersey.
Fortunately, director Martin Friedman has tapped the talents of Sandra Emerick, for she is as Idina Menzelish as it gets. Emerick is an exceptionally gifted performer with incredible vocal strength, range and tone. Her duets with the silver-throated and affable Snider – who is perfectly matched with Emerick – and with the adorable Knobloch – who is too young to play Lucas but nails it anyway – are show-stoppers. And she absolutely soars during the passionate “You Learn to Live Without” and “Always Starting Over,” which closes the show.
If Emerick was not as good as she is, surely Andrzejewski would have stolen the show with her rich vocal performance and engaging portrayal of Kate.
The nine-piece orchestra under Matthew Dolan’s musical direction is superb, though much of its work is undermined by poor sound mixing under R. Eric Simna’s design. Some of the flat vocals by supporting cast members may be attributed to this issue.
Audiences are expected to distinguish between Elizabeth’s respective narratives by whether she is wearing glasses during one but not the other. With that important prop missing upon occasion during the opening Saturday night performance, some audience members were left wondering whether the character had corrective lasik surgery during intermission.
With the collective short-comings of this play and this production, others attending “If/Then” may have found themselves wondering “what if” they had chosen an alternative path for the evening’s entertainment.