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A star vehicle drives on without its star
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s ‘If/Then’ at the Academy of Music
Ever since George Washington moved the capital from Philly to New York City, Philadelphians have found much to lament. Not only do Broadway shows no longer try out in Philadelphia, as they did for many years, but the road companies of Broadway hits treat Philadelphia in a dismissive manner.
Idina skips Philly
Take If/Then. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey wrote the show as a vehicle for Idina Menzel, best known to most of the world for playing Elphaba in Wicked and singing "Let It Go" in Frozen. She was the drawing card during If/Then’s 12-month Broadway run. She also starred in the national tour that began in Denver last October. But she’s not with the show for its six-day engagement at the Academy of Music.
Menzel was contracted to play only the first seven cities of the tour. Jackie Burns, who understudied for Menzel throughout the show’s Broadway engagement, took over at the end of January and has been playing it since. Still, she does an excellent job.
This is not the first road company that’s given Philly secondary status. Pippin’s national tour played in Wilmington one year before producers brought it here. And there’s a logical explanation: So many Philadelphians travel to and from New York to see an original cast that a Philly booking seems almost superfluous.
The road not taken
If/Then deserves credit for being an original story, not based on a book, film or catalog of hits. Its premise is that small decisions can effect major changes in peoples’ lives; what seems inconsequential can lead to radically different outcomes. The show examines what happens when we choose one road instead of another. This ambitious script focuses on one woman, Elizabeth (Burns), who must decide whether to go to a community event or listen to music in a coffee house.
In one scenario, she is attracted to Josh (Matthew Hydzik), an Army doctor, while Lucas (Anthony Rapp) is her platonic friend who is a community organizer. In the other, Lucas becomes the love interest. In one she becomes a professor and mother of two; in the other, a renowned city planner who is childless. The two plot tracks alternate rapidly. As a city planner she calls herself Beth, whereas her other persona likes to be known as Liz.
I’m disappointed by the dichotomy of a woman having to choose between a family and a career. Why is the central character without love and without a family when she's successful at work?
In full voice
Burns’s singing was exciting, sounding very similar to Menzel. Truth be told, she followed Menzel’s idiosyncratic belting style too slavishly. Menzel’s technique is to project penetrating sounds on notes in the middle of the treble clef — that is, the upper-high part of her voice. She does that in lieu of mixing so-called “head” voice which seems to resonate in the “mask,” the area of the forehead between the eyebrows. In contrast, Menzel’s climactic notes seem to emanate entirely from her throat. She employs straight tones, with a minimal use of vibrato. It’s a thrilling sound.
Burns used that technique as she shifted from a normal speaking voice into loud, resonating tones which sounded as if electric reverb was added. This can be viewed as a plus; if ticket-buyers can’t see Menzel in person, at least they can hear a good imitation. On the other hand, some might like to hear Burns’s own gifts. In Act II, when she sang quietly to her children in their cribs, a softer, gentler approach was most welcome.
Burns should consider that Julie Stein and Stephen Sondheim wrote the lead role in Gypsy specifically for Ethel Merman, yet other stars (Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone) were successful when they sang the part in their own differing styles.
If I seem to spend excessive time writing about the singing of one individual, it’s because this was the show’s raison d'être.
Plenty to like
And yet, the heart and soul of this production is the self-effacing Rapp (Rent's original Mark Cohen), playing Luke. He sounds fresh of voice and projects a warm personality as he repeats this Broadway role. His duet “Best Worst Mistake” with Marc Delacruz as his partner, David, is a touching highlight. Jacques C. Smith effectively played Stephen, Beth’s boss in her city planning job.
I’m impressed by the ingenuity of Yorkey’s story, and by many clever twists. But there’s an excess of intricate plotting. Some of the story development relies on contrivances and coincidences; other events occur only because of the intervention of Elizabeth’s extremely-pushy friend Kate (Tamyra Gray), who develops into an otherwise-engaging character. She and Janine DiVita, as Kate’s lover, Anne, perform a beautiful duet called “Love While You Can.”
People have complained that it’s difficult to determine at any given moment which of the stories we’re in. Burns’s posture and style of speech don’t noticeably change when she switches from Liz to Beth in the midst of a scene. The main guide provided by director Michael Greif is to have the academic Liz wear eyeglasses (and she whips them on and off rapidly). Of course, you can’t choose to change your body’s vision; we must assume Beth is wearing contact lenses.
Mark Wedland designed the minimalistic sets that displayed rotating images of city maps and buildings. Larry Keigwin devised superfluous choreography.
This show has more depth than one would expect from a star vehicle, and I’d like to see alternate stagings by local companies.
What, When, Where
If/Then. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt. Michael Greif directed. Through Sunday, June 26, 2016 at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 790-5883 or kimmelcenter.org.
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