Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through January 4
The Pantages is playing happy host to Idina Menzel in the national tour of If/Then, the latest crest in a really remarkable career to date.
She first came to prominence in 1996 by creating the role of Maureen in Rent, and copping a Tony nomination for her work. A few years later she brought home the Tony as the very first Elphaba in Wicked, then tore up the soundtrack of Disney’s Frozen as Elsa the Ice Queen, and scored another Tony nomination and a year’s run for If/Then on Broadway. At this point, the showbiz world was her oyster; doubtless if she’d announced a yen to star in the life of Joseph Stalin, financing would have been found and artists engaged forthwith, with audiences clamoring to see their diva in the flesh.
A diva Menzel is, and If/Then is first and foremost a diva vehicle, with the downsides that come with all such. The show’s problems begin with the central plot conceit, which goes as follows: Having ended a 12-year marriage in Phoenix Arizona, Elizabeth (Menzel), who has studied to be an urban planner but never actually worked in the profession, arrives in New York to make a fresh start. She’s met in a park by two longtime friends, each standing in for one of two paths she might take. Kate (LaChanze) is a gay kindergarten teacher who wants to show her friend “Liz” a party-hearty good time, while Lucas (Anthony Rapp) is an old college flame of “Beth”; now a community activist, he wants to bring her to a rally so she can start doing “important work.” Cautious and prudent (how she describes herself) Elizabeth can’t decide which way to go, at which point she bifurcates. Brian Yorkey’s libretto then carries both identities through two separate realities, told in alternate, sometimes overlapping scenes.
It’s dismaying to discover that neither story is particularly involving, nor are they much different from each other. Beth achieves professional success at the expense of personal happiness; Liz gets the love of her life — Josh, a doctor just out of the Army, played by James Snyder — but little sense that life’s been worth living. By the end the narratives dovetail; in fact, they more or less end at the same place, psychologically speaking, which makes it seem as if the show is saying “Que sera sera; whatever happens, happens, and life will sort of go as it will.” (That’s the theme, but is it really necessary to take nearly three hours to explore and convey it?)
Set pieces fly in and out and spin around in the manner of the plot points, but to little real purpose. Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s songs are perky but generic (hard to believe this was the team that tore our hearts with Next to Normal). The acting is broad and energetic. Snyder, restrained and sincere, comes off best, but though Menzel received the cheers of the opening night crowd, she sounded reedy and nasal from where I was sitting. More than usual, I mean.
What really nags is the laziness of the character development. Everyone is constantly referencing how wonderful our heroine is in either incarnation. Urban planner Beth gets a cornucopia of compliments from on-the-make boss Stephen (Daren A. Herbert): “Be your brilliant self…You’ve always had the right dream.. You’re brilliant in every way….I love your mind.”
Ex-BF Lucas is also right in there pitching: “You need to be making shit happen…You were brilliant…You still are….You look amazing.”
But Beth never says or does anything connected to her career that seems remotely brilliant or amazing. Some of her decisions and pronouncements actually sound rather dim, yet everyone she meets, from bosses down to interns, hangs on to her every syllable, as if she were Mies van der Rohe and Robert Moses rolled into one.
Liz’s coterie is somewhat more measured: Josh: “I had a feeling that we were meant for each other somehow” or Karen: “You’re an American hero. You could’ve given up years ago, and you never did.” But they are no less adoring, always staring into her eyes and sacrificing everything to serve her. It’s all Elizabeth, all the time.
Why did the deck have to be stacked this way? Couldn’t we get some first-hand evidence that this self-absorbed ditherer was worth everybody’s time and attention? Certainly neither “Beth” nor “Liz” allows anyone else’s needs to get very much onto her radar. Karen and Lucas are assigned love interests and a couple of songs apiece, but their material feels like an afterthought, as if it had been included primarily to fill out an otherwise thin narrative.
And consider the malicious ways in which “Orin,” Elizabeth’s unseen ex-husband, is described, along with potshots characterizing Phoenix (a perfectly nice place — I’ve been there many times) as a soul-deadening wasteland. (I suspect that if Orin and Elizabeth’s dozen years of marriage had taken place in Detroit or Cleveland, the script wouldn’t take the same amount of glee in shitting on those burgs.)
You’d think if any show would have an awareness that there are two sides to every story, it’s If/Then. But no: Elizabeth is painted as wholly blameless in the failure of that union, and might have been wed to Darth Vader for all we hear of this ex.
A diva show requires that we believe in and commit not just to the talent of the star, but also to the role or roles she’s playing. Though Menzel is undoubtedly a charismatic force on stage, the insistence on putting her character(s) on an undeserved and uninteresting pedestal is what, for me, dooms If/Then.
Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood; Tues-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through Jan. 3. (Additional 2 p.m. performances on Dec. 24 and Dec. 31; additional 7:30 p.m. performances on Dec. 27 and Jan. 3; no evening performances on Dec. 24 and Dec. 31; dark on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1) (800) 982-2787; www.HollywoodPantages.com or www.Ticketmaster.com. Running time: two hours 45 minutes with one intermission.