IF/THEN Demands And Rewards Your Full Attention

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The Cast of IF/THEN. Photo Credit: www.FabulousFox.com

IF/THEN is a different sort of musical than what you may be used to. It’s not an “easy” show; you probably won’t sit there quietly singing to yourself and straining against your better judgment to get up and dance along as you might with MAMA MIA!, GREASE or ANYTHING GOES. It’s a deeper, more introspective production with top-flight acting and powerful vocals.  It’s not a show for those of you who don’t care for intricate plots and complicated narrative. IF/THEN rewards the vigilant observer with a rich character study, more multi-layered than you’d typically expect from your traditional musical fare. 

Original Broadway Cast members Jackie Burns (Elizabeth) and Anthony Rapp (Lucas) are joined by Matthew Hydzik (Josh), and the show-stealing Tamyra Gray (Kate) in the National Tour of IF/THEN, which plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis March 15 - 27. That combined star power made for an engrossing production. The plot sound straightforward enough: Elizabeth, freshly free from a bad marriage, finds herself in New York and at a crossroads in her life. She could go with her carefree friend Kate for some much-needed fun, or she could join her old college flame Lucas in their former favorite pastime – social activism. Either way, she encounters Josh, himself fresh from the front after a 2nd tour in the Middle East for the US Army. Does she accept his sheepish courting? Does she join her serious fellow for an evening of borderline illegal activities in the name of the greater good, or party like its 1999? Elizabeth chooses option D) all of the above. For the rest of the show, Liz (in Clark Kent-like glasses) or Beth (in 20/20 clarity of purpose) pursues her various life paths. The audience has to stay sharp because those glasses come and go quickly and the supporting players’ reactions to Liz/Beth’s life flicker accordingly. I was highly impressed with the depth of Elizabeth that the show explores. A good twenty years or more is covered in the two acts, exploring marriage to Josh, children, careers, friendships, tragedy and loss. Most musicals come to a single major complication at the end of the first act and resolve it relatively quickly in the second. IF/THEN presents a multitude of complications and doesn’t so much overcome them but rather frees Elizabeth to accept and cope and move on.

Jackie Burns could lead any production with her full complement of Broadway-honed skills. Nuanced dramatic acting, perfect comedic timing, beautifully lush singing voice, leading lady looks—you can’t ask for much more from your lead actress. Even so, Burns only narrowly manages to not be overshadowed by the bombastic beauty Tamyra Gray. I was mesmerized by everything she did on stage, from the way she moved, her wonderful voice, and especially how honest her character felt. It was only her own conflict’s resolution which felt a little less than real, though I’d have to think that shortcoming falls on Brian Yorkey’s book. IF/THEN is the creation of writer and lyricist Yorkey with composer Tom Kitt and director Michael Greif, the creative team that won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for another thoughtful and intricate musical in NEXT TO NORMAL. As wonderful as the story is, I did find myself wondering if it was told in the best format for the material.

I’m an old school, Gershwin/Rodgers and Hammerstein guy myself. To the musical modernist the rhymed couplets married to bright melodies probably seems terribly old-fashioned. To my ear, lyrics that don’t rhyme put to music but not to melody sounds discordant.  This is probably why I generally don’t care for sung-through musicals, and while IF/THEN isn’t sung through the acting and storytelling was so enjoyable that I can’t help but think that maybe it shouldn’t have been a musical at all. Kitt’s music is fine, and Yorky’s lyrics convey the characters’ inner monologues, but the songs themselves aren’t particularly memorable and didn’t seem to lend themselves to particularly interesting choreography. Frankly, the ensemble feels mostly unnecessary here, mostly serving as stage dressing to remind us that New York is a crowded city. There are other ways to explore the inner thoughts of these well-developed characters that would have appealed to my sensibilities better. That’s the wonderful thing about art, of course—everyone chooses what they want to take from it. I’m sure the original cast recording is a favorite of modern musical mavens. I’m a big believer in show, don’t tell. There were times during the show where the acting was so engrossing that the inevitable song became an unwelcome intrusion. Maybe I should cover more plays?

No matter what you want from a stage performance there is certainly something for everyone in IF/THEN. It’s a fantastic piece of storytelling that demands the audience’s full attention, and the performances of Jackie Burns, Tamyra Gray, Anthony Rapp, and Matthew Hydzik deserve and reward that attention in equal share. Get your tickets and find out more at www.FabulousFox.com 

4.0 / 5.0