Alternate Realities

If / Then (Hollywood Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaFirst and foremost, because I am obligated to clear the misconception: If you go to If/Then – The Musical expecting a musicalization of that seminal work, “Go To Statement Considered Harmful” by Edgar Dijkstra, you will be solely disappointed.

Although that would make a cool musical. Especially with Idena Menzel (FB) as Grace Hopper.

So what is If/Then (which we saw last night at the Pantages Theatre (FB) in Hollywood) about, if not programming? Science has a theory that every time anyone makes a decision, the universe splits. Each reality reflects the timeline from the decision point, following what would have happened for each way the decision could have gone. This creates an infinite number of alternate realities, reflecting all possible decisions. Many may be dead and lifeless; many may be almost identical. Each is self contained, with no way to know that the other realities exist.

If/Then shows the path of two of those realities as they apply to the life of Dr. Elizabeth Vaughan, an urban planner recently returned to New York City after the end of her college marriage. Both paths revolve around the interaction of Elizabeth and her friends: Lucas (a college friend and housing activist); Kate (a lesbian kindergarten teacher who lives across the hall from Elizabeth); Stephen (another college friend and an urban planner with the City of New York); and Josh (an Army doctor just returned from a tour of duty, who meets Elizabeth in the park).

In one path (the “Liz” path, so-called because Elizabeth is called “Liz” in this path), Liz follows the advice of Kate: she makes the wild choices. She goes into academia, starts dating the man she just met (Josh), and works to build a family and friends.

In the other path (the “Beth” path), Beth follows the advice of Lucas: she accepts a job doing urban planning for the city, and dedicates her life not to love but to work, moving up the urban planning life, working for Stephen.

In both cases, the “ideal” life goes in an uncertain direction in the second act, concluding with Beth/Liz getting the opportunity to start over. You can find a more detailed summary with the various plot twists over on Wikipedia.

The presentation of the alternate realities keeps intertwining the two timelines: songs often keep going back and forth from one line to the other during the song.  Contrast this with The Last 5 Years, which also has two timelines, but keeps them separate except for one meeting point. How do you keep track of which line you are in?  By what characters are around, their demeanor, and by what Elizabeth is called.

In reading the reviews before the show, I’ve seen critics all over the map regarding the story (an original story by Brian Yorkey) and the music/lyrics (music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey). Some like it; some find it “meh”. I actually enjoyed the story and seeing the multiple lines. If I had one quibble story-wise, it is that the show is far too New York City centric. I understand that to New Yorkers and to those who work on Broadway, New York City is the center of the universe — but it really isn’t. The 33 square miles of Manhattan is just a drop compared to most megalopolises.  The constant dropping of references to New York communities and institutions is confusing to the non-New York audiences, and the New York specific references in the projects provide no meaning or clues to those that know not New York. But the worst part is: none of them are necessary. The story would work just the same in any other major city (with some joke adjustments). This makes the New York attitude come off with a sense of “we’re better and cooler than you” — which will play great on Broadway, but lands with a thud elsewhere, thankyouverymuch.

Modulo the New York aspect, the underlying story I found enjoyable. This is one of those very few musicals that actually had humor that made me laugh. There are great jokes and great lines in this show (none of which I can recall right now, except for a wonderful Yankees / Mets joke), and the leads seemed reasonable, if not perhaps a bit too sitcom-successful. I should also note that I particularly liked the choice to have Elizabeth with a PhD in a technical field — urban planning. This is a wonderful role model for the girls in the audience, and deserves extra applause.

Before I go to the music, an aside about the audience. I’ve commented in the past about a phenomenon I’ll call “audience coloring”: that is, when a show by an African-American author or with African-American theme suddenly changes the complexion of the audience, and the same with other ethnicities. The implication — which I can understand — is that a group previously marginalized in the onstage presentation mix makes a special effort to go to a show that speaks to their experience. But I go to a show to learn about all experiences — and so I would like to see audience diversity for all shows, just as we’re pushing for performer and creative diversity on the stage and in the house. I mention this because there was a “coloring” I hadn’t noticed before at this show: there were significantly more same-sex couples — and visibly out same-sex couples — at this show. When I asked my wife, she felt it was because the show made a conscious effort (if not an over-effort) to portray same-sex and sexually-fluid couples in addition to the main story. I would think so, but it seemed too pushed, too forced. In fact, it is so pushed — and the show is so New York centric — that I wonder how this show will play outside the liberal urban centers (especially in the South and Midwest). I truly look forward to the day that diversity just is there, and the efforts to mirror society diversity aren’t as “in your face” as we’re seeing these days. End the aside. Begin the beguine.

This brings us to the music of the show. Going in, I had heard the album — in fact, I had heard the album with this cast (which is now something rare to get in Los Angeles (ah, for the days when the LACLO usually brought in the Broadway stars)). I had actually liked the music quite a bit — if I look in my iTunes, 60% of the songs are starred as favorites. Some songs are particularly cute — such as “What the Fuck?”; others are very touching. I particularly liked “You Learn to Live Without”, which is a lovely counterpoint to “Who Gave You Permission?” from Ballroom. Both looked at dealing with the aftermath of death: one with acceptance and moving forward, the other with anger. About my only problem with the music was volume — at times, it tended to overpower the voices. I’ll note that the orchestra (credits in a few paragraphs) was conducted by a woman: Carmel Dean [☣] — something you don’t see as much as you should, and kudos to the If/Then team for the selection.
[☣ – Note: Do not go to Dean’s website “carmeldean dot com”– it attempts a drive-by injection of malware. I have contacted the website designers (Roundhouse Designs), and they are working to disinfect the site.]

Music brings us to dance, and dance brings us to cheography. Here, perhaps, is my biggest quibble with the show. Larry Keigwin (FB)’s choreography, assisted by Associate Choreographer Mark Myars (FB), works most of the time. But during many numbers, inexplicably,  there are all these fancy dances going on in the background that seemingly have nothing to do with the story. By doing so, they serve to detract and not enhance the story. I strongly believe that dance in a show must serve the story; it isn’t just there to show of the dancing. Dance can show joy and happiness, love and sorry, in ways that words cannot. But you look in the background in many of the scenes — especially the park scenes early on — and it just makes no sense. Not every musical requires loads of dancing; some are just songs and appropriately rhythmic music. The choreographers here seemed to have forgotten that at points. Marc delaCruz (FB) served as dance captain; it is interesting to note that delaCruz was not the typical swing in the position, but had a significant track (David).

Let’s now turn to the performances. Luckily for many in the West (Denver, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, San Diego, Costa Mesa, Tempe) we get many of the original leads, so I can’t speak to how the new tour leads work. In terms of broad performance, the direction by Michael Greif, assisted by Associate Director David Alpert (FB) and Production Stage Manager Shawn Pennington (FB), worked to keep the distinctions between the multiple timelines clear. I didn’t see an obviously heavy directoral hand, and the movements and emotions seemed to fit the characters well (including, except for the odd dancing, the reactions of the ensemble to the main characters).  I’ll note that Greif has worked with Menzel quite a bit, so the quality of their closeness came out in the seamlessness of the performances.

In terms of individual performances, we begin with Idena Menzel (FB). She clearly brought a younger audience to the show; you should hear the reaction when she came out on stage. She has an energy and a connection to this character that comes across to the audience. I personally feel that she relates to the character and the notion of decisions that can shape one’s life: she’s coming out of a long marriage to Taye Diggs (FB), she’s had her life reshaped by her decisions on Frozen, and she probably is regularly thinking about how her decisions have lead her on this path. She gives a great — indeed, remarkable performance as Elizabeth/ Beth / Liz. Very realistic. Very natural. Some critics have commented on her voice; that didn’t bother me (I like distinctive voices). However, she did suffer from the New York centric focus of the show — the words in the songs often came too fast, making them difficult to follow. This won’t bother the New York audiences at all — New Yawkers talk fast and live fast. But out in the tour world, the story may be a little different. It will be interesting to see how Jackie Burns (FB) modifies the performance once Idena leaves — in particular, will she slightly slow things down to increase understandability.

In the next tier, we have the “best friends”: Kate (LaChanze (FB)) and Lucas (Anthony Rapp (FB)). LaChanze was delight to finally see — I’ve loved her voice since I first heard it on Once on this Island. She, too, brought a realize and naturalness to her character that was great; she clearly enjoyed this role. Similarly with Rapp — he came across as comfortable as Lucas, and had a nice interplay with Menzel. Both had wonderful singing voices.

Also in this tier were the love interests of various forms: James Snyder (FB) as Josh and Daren A. Herbert (FB) as Stephen. We’ve seen Snyder before on the LA stages in Dangerous Beauty. We loved his voice and performance then, and we love it still. He just has a very charming stage presence that makes him instantly likable, which combines with his great voice to give a powerhouse performance. My only complaint is that his album should also have been for sale.  Herbert was new to us, but also gave a good performance as Stephen. You could see him as a New York urban planner.

Rounding out the love interests of the secondary characters were Janine DiVita (FB) as Anne, Kate’s love interest (and U/S Elizabeth); Marc delaCruz (FB) as David, the love interest to Lucas in one track (and dance captain); and Kyra Faith (FB) as Elena.  DiVita gave a spirited performance as Anne — she mostly was in the background in Act I, but shone in Act II. I did enjoy Faith’s performance. She stands out in the ensemble and other numbers due to a unique height and look, and she has a great interaction with Menzel.

Rounding out the cast in smaller and ensemble positions were: English Bernhardt (FB) (Paulette and others); Xavier Cano (FB) (A Soldier and others; u/s David); Corey Greenan (FB) (Deputy Mayor, An Architect, and others; u/s Josh, Stephen); Cliffton Hall (FB) (A Bartender and others; u/s Lucas); Deedee Magno Hall (FB) (Cathy and others; u/s Elizabeth, Kate); Tyler McGee (FB) (A Street Musician and others; u/s Josh); and Alicia Taylor Tomasko (FB) (A Flight Attendant and others). Swings were Charissa Bertels (FB) (Swing; u/s Kate, Anne); Trey Ellett (FB) (Swing; u/s Lucas, David); Joseph Morales (FB) (Swing); and Emily Rogers (FB) (Swing; u/s Anne). This cast has a large number of double-understudies for some reason. Standouts in this group were McGee’s street musician (who I noticed playing his guitar). The group danced well, but note my previous comment on the choreography problems (which isn’t the fault of the performance, who executed the moves beautifully, but perhaps mechanically).

The last performance aspect is music. As noted earlier, the music was by Tom Kitt, who did his usual rockish score. Orchestrations were by Michael Starobin (FB). I found both the music and how it was orchestrated quite good. Rounding out the lead music credits were: Carmel Dean [Music Director]; Annmarie Milazzo [Vocal Arrangements]; Michael Keller [Music Coordinator]; Michael Aarons [Associate Music Coordinator]. The orchestra was conducted by Carmel Dean, assisted by Associate Conductor Kyle Norris (FB), and Assistant Conductor Dan Bailey (FB) [who was also Keyboard 1]. The remainder of the touring musicians were Hidayat Honari (FB) [Guitar] and Jay Mack (FB) [Drums]. These were augmented by LA local musicians Kathleen Robertson (FB) [Violin]; Susan Chatman [Concertmaster]; Jessica Van Velzen (FB) [Viola]; Paula Fehrenbach (FB) [Cello]; Trey Henry [Bass / Electric Bass]; Dick Mitchell [Alto Sax / Flute / Clarinet / Bass Clarinet]; John Yoakum (FB) [Tenor Sax / Clarinet / Oboe / English Horn]; Wayne Bergeron (FB) [Trumpet]; Paul Viapiano (FB) [Guitars]; David Witham (FB) [Keyboard Sub]; Brian Miller [Orchestra Contractor]. I’ll just note — because you don’t get to see the credits — that Bergeron is part of one of the best jazz bands around: Gordon Goodson’s Big Phat Band.

Turning to the creative and production credits. The set design by Mark Wendland worked well: there was a turntable (which obviously sat on top of the Pantages stage so they do not have to build it at each venue) and a number of movable open-frame boxes that served as multiple set pieces, combined with a scaffold. All worked well to establish the sense of place and worked well regarding the multiple timelines. They were augmented by projection design of Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully. The projections kept reinforcing the location as “New York” (dummy) through maps and subway lines, which were meaningless to those who did not know the city (like much of LA). They were, however, effective in conveying the appropriate sense of motion for the subway lines and the air travel. The lighting by Kenneth Posner worked well and provided appropriate emotional support for the scenes; I particularly noted the use of red washes near the end. We sat in the Mezzanine this show, and (unfortunately) discovered that Brian Ronan (FB)’s sound design wasn’t as well tuned for people off the ground floor — the sound was muffled a bit. I’m beginning to think the answer for the Pantages, if you are not mid-to-front on the Orchestra level, is to rent the headphone and let the amplification do its job. You’ll be in better shape than dealing with the sound bouncing off of all the rococo design in the Pantages auditorium. The costumes by Emily Rebholz worked reasonably well, although I was unsure about Menzel’s wedding dress in the Act II opener — it was oddly bulky and the zipper was too prominent (c’mon, I saw it from the balcony). The wig and hair desgin by David Brian Brown (FB) worked well and appeared natural; he must have fun trying to control Tyra Faith’s ‘doo :-). Rounding out the production credits are: Telsey+Company (FB) [Casting]; Jake Bell [Technical Supervision]; 321 Theatrical Management [General Management]; Jen Ash (FB) [Stage Manager]; Heather Englander (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager]. There were too many producers to list them all, so see here instead.

The If/Then tour (FB) continues in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre (FB) through January 3, 2016; it then decamps off to San Diego, Tempe, Costa Mesa. The original cast folks then depart, and the tour cast continues to Dallas and points midwest and east.  Tickets are available through the Pantages Box Office/Ticketmaster; discount tickets are available through Goldstar. I enjoyed the show quite a bit; I think you might as well. Just don’t go expecting to learn anything about program.

P.S.: The programmer in me insists on the following:  ENDIF. Of course, if you’re using Algol 68 or Bash, that should be FI. Then perhaps it should be END IF (Ada), unless it is END-IF (Cobol). Now I see why folks use blocks instead.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: The last weekend of December has “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Nunsense at Crown City Theatre (FB). The new year, 2016, starts with “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) on January 2nd. This is followed by “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also a “hold” (i.e., dates blocked, but awaiting ticketing) for for January 16 or January 17 for “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB). There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start. This leads to uncertainty about the Group Rep show (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). There is currently nothing on the schedule for February, except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on.  As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.