Some musicals (the best kind in my judgment) make you lean in and embrace their characters, even if those characters are problematic people. Others are driven by proclamation, and the more they confront you with those proclamations the more you find yourself disengaging emotionally.
A perfect example of the latter can be found in “If/Then,” the unabashedly New York-centric show by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), the team (along with director Michael Greif) that also was behind “Next to Normal.” Now in a highly polished national touring company production making a stop at the Oriental Theatre, this heavily contrived piece, clearly devised for Idina Menzel’s mega-voice — and performed here by Jackie Burns, Menzel’s Broadway replacement, whose pipes and commitment are equally formidable — has its moments. But overall it is annoying and exhausting.
When: Through March 6
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $25 – $98
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission
To be sure, each of us arrives on this Earth as something of a unique scientific experiment whose “results” depend on nature and nurture, luck and labor. But unlike experiments in the lab, we have no control group or measuring stick for comparison — only our “one life to live.” Elizabeth (Burns, a Tina Fey look-alike), who becomes the bifurcated character of Liz and Beth in “If/Then,” is the exception. Ever ambivalent, she gets to live out two different but simultaneous (and somewhat confusingly overlapping) possible midlife existences.
Educated at Vassar, where she was a stellar student of urban planning, Elizabeth opted to marry and follow her husband to Phoenix. Now, about 13 years later, she has divorced him, and, closing in on 39, she arrives in Manhattan to restart her life.
As Liz she unexpectedly finds love and motherhood, with her career somewhat pushed to the background again. But as Beth she soars career-wise (with help from some all-important heavy-duty contacts), overseeing major urban development programs that even include politically correct mixed-income housing. Ultimately, however, Beth finds herself feeling lonely, especially as her gay friends, both male and female, begin to follow the newly possible marriage-and-family track. The question remains: Who ever said you could have it all?
With projections of street maps of various parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and clever video to suggest a subway (the work of Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully, with Mark Wendland’s steely set hinting at the trendy High Line park), the show is full of New York types, with one crucial character the classic Midwestern outsider with a big heart.
That character is Josh (the winningly understated and charming Matthew Hydzik), a young doctor raised in Nebraska, who has put himself through med school thanks to the military, and has just returned from two stints in the Middle East to work in New York. While walking through a park he spots Liz, who has taken a teaching job found through the old “more-than-a-friend,” Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), now in a top position at City Hall. She is extremely wary of his advances, but he pursues her.
The romance between Liz and Josh is the emotional heart of the show, as well as the source of its tragedy (I will reveal no more). Meanwhile, Beth allows her friendship with Lucas (deftly played by Anthony Rapp), a longtime gay friend, to substitute for romance. He is a nerdy and penniless Bernie Sanders-type activist of the Occupy Wall Street era, and has a passion for organic gardening. Ultimately she sees that Lucas is not the answer (although much pain is inflicted in the process), and he proceeds to marry an affluent doctor (Marc Delacruz). As for Beth/Liz’s best female friend, the irrepressible kindergarten teacher, Kate (the high-spirited Tamyra Gray), she has her own romantic problems with girlfriend Anne (Janine DiVita).
The city “crowd” moves around with irritating pedestrian perkiness courtesy of choreographer Larry Keigwin (although Emily Rebolz’s costumes are Old Navy-meets-Anthropologie perfect).
But mostly there is Elizabeth, in one form or another. Burns, a true theatrical marathon runner, is never less than believable — alternately angry, self-doubting, determined, love-stung, unnerved, lost, found, ambivalent. But by the time she arrives at her 11th-hour aria, “Always Starting Over,” you might well be tired of her. The lady doth protest too much.