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IF/THEN: A New Musical

IF/THEN: A New Musical

(National Tour)
Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey

AT&T Performing Arts Center

Directed by Michael Greif
Choreography by Larry Keigwin
Musical Direction by Carmel Dean
Orchestrations by Michael Starobin
Vocal Arrangements by Annmaire Milazzo
Set Design by Mark Wendland
Costume Design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner
Sound Design by Brian Ronan
Projection Design by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully
Wig and Hair Design by David Brian Brown
Production Stage Management by Shawn Pennington
Stage Management by Jen Ash

Elizabeth: Jackie Burns
Lucas: Anthony Rapp
Kate: Tamyra Gray
Josh: Matthew Hydzik
Anne: Janine Divita
Stephen: Daren A. Herbert
David: Marc Delacruz
Paulette and others: English Bernhardt
Swing; U/S Kate,Annie: Charissa Bertels
A Soldier, others: Xavier Cano
Swing; U/S Lucas, David: Trey Ellett
Elena: Kyra Faith
Deputy Mayer, others: Corey Greenan
A Bartender, others: Cliffton Hall
Cathy, others: Deedee Magno Hall
A Street Musician, others: Tyler McGee
Swing: Joseph Morales:
Swing; U/S Anne: Emily Rogers
A Flight Attendant and others: Alicia Taylor Tomasko

Reviewed Performance: 1/27/2016

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

We all have been there. There are things and certain situations in your life that didn’t turn out quite the way you hoped they would. You get knocked down by life’s struggles with such force you wonder how to get up and start all over again. Your heart and soul feel like New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady after the endless tackles and sacks by the Broncos from last weekend’s championship game. Bruised, angry, sad, scarred, and digging deep within yourself, you do get up and try again. But what if you could be someone else? That you could clean the slate and start life completely as a new person, or two for that matter? This is the journey for Elizabeth, the central character in the new musical If/Then, which re-started their national tour Wednesday evening at the Winspear House (playing through January 31).

Elizabeth having just gone through a tough divorce, decides to leave Phoenix and starts a new life by moving to New York City. She reconnects with her friend Lucas, and finds a new friendship with her new neighbor, Kate. Kate persuades Elizabeth to twist her name and changed it to “Liz” as a way to start a new life, or persona. But on the other side, Lucas tells her to go back to her name when they met in college, which was “Beth”, to reboot her professional career as an urban planner. With these two new identities/names, Elizabeth takes the audience down two very different and varied emotional paths as Liz and Beth in song and book.

The origins of If/Then began with an out of town tryout in November 2013 in Washington. The musical eventually arrived on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in March 2014 starring three megawatt stars of Broadway, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and LaChanze. Menzel and Rapp of course are two of the original stars of the history making rock opera, Jonathan Larsen’s Rent. LaChanze won the Tony for her work as Celie in The Color Purple. If/Then ran for 401 performances before closing in March 2015. The musical received two Tony award nominations for its score and Best Actress in a Musical for Menzel.

If/Then brings back together a trio that is packed talent. The score, book, and lyrics are by the Tony award winning duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. They created the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal, while the direction is by Michael Greif, who earned Tony nominations for directing Rent, Next to Normal, and Grey Gardens.

Yorkey’s book, is packed with great laughs to help even out the darker elements of the piece. But the book is a bit anarchic and does take some time to grasp onto the plot and the juxtaposition between Beth and Liz. There is the aide of lighting and the use of black eye glasses to transform from one to the other. But in several scenes it happens so fast your attention span struggles to catch up and stay with the story. However, once you do get a firm understanding of the book, then the story and characters ebb beautifully, especially in Act II.

Kitt’s score is pure bliss with overtones of pop, folk, and a dollop of soft rock. I thought it was a wise artistic decision to have all the major characters have a major solo and/or duet. This not only strengthen their characterizations, but allowed the performer their moment in the spotlight. Kitt composed soft, deeply moving ballads and quite festive up-tempo numbers. Some of the stand out numbers include “What If”; “You Never Know”; “What the F***”; “Here I Go”; “You Don’t Need to Love Me”; “Hey Kid”; “Some Other Me” ; “I Hate You” and “Always Starting Over”.

It was a delicious pleasure to hear live violins, a Viola, and a Cello pouring out of the orchestra pit. Hearing them throughout the evening brought Kitt’s music to bountiful life.

Mark Wendland’s scenic design comprises of an assortment of set pieces, framed large boxes, chairs, and other elements all placed on a revolving stage. This moving floor really worked within the book, especially in a fast song involving Liz/Beth, Josh, Stephen, and Lucas. From the rafters he created other pieces like fire escapes and other elements to set the mood and place within the story. However, in the original Broadway production there was a massive mirror hung above the cast to aide in the Liz/Beth switching as well as the changes within the other characters that apparently has been cut for the tour.

Wendland also designed a large iron bridge/walkway that was used all evening long. At the performance I attended this piece whispered down when it simply stopped in mid movement. You could see some cables knotted up and the walkway looked like it buckled a little. The stage manager’s voice came on the speakers requesting that the actor on the walkway to exit the stage, and the show was stopped as they fixed the mechanical glitch. Kudos to the tech crew and the cast, because once it was fixed, the show started back up as if nothing happened and it honestly did not affect the show. Ah, live theater!

The projection design by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully was fantastic. They splashed on the massive upstage scrim a map of New York and its boroughs. So as the characters moved from one part of the city to another, or the subway, or other locations, the projections moved along with them, mapping out their journey for the audience to follow along. It was touching to see the Freedom Tower shown in several scenes. The projections also created magical night skies with stars, high rise offices, and for the airplane scene some vivid, frightening realism. You’ll know what I mean when you see the show.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design fits like a glove with the other design elements. It was his lighting plot and where he aimed certain lighting instruments that focused light directly onto the actors that truly aided the audience immensely on the switching of Liz and Beth and the other characters. There were cool blues and warm golds for summer, some soft hues of lavender for Liz/Beth’s birthday party, and the lighting design for the painful emotional scenes in Act II were flawless.

The entire company of If/Then delivered outstanding work, from the ensemble to the principals. They all were firmly grounded in realism.

Providing marvelous performances within the cast include Janine Divita as Anne (Kate’s girlfriend); Daren A. Herbert as Beth’s college crush and now her boss Stephen; Marc Delacruz as David, who becomes Luca’s boyfriend; Kyra Faith as Elena, who is hired by Beth and becomes a new friend; and Tyler McGee as the guitar playing musician.

It should be noted that Wednesday evening were the very first performances for Jackie Burns (Elizabeth); Matthew Hydzik (Josh); and Tamyra Gray (Kate). The tour initially kicked off with original cast members Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and LaChanze. But then then two ladies left the tour due to other commitments. The tour went on hiatus, and has now returned, starting here in Dallas with these three new principals. Thus we were very lucky to see them dive into these roles for the first time in front of a live audience. But you honestly could not see this within their debut performances. Along with the sole returning original cast member, Anthony Rapp, all four gave extraordinary, standing ovation performances.

Anthony Rapp originated the role of Lucas, a community organizer and activist. You would think after a long run on Broadway, then tour with the show that Rapp would be mentally drained of portraying the role. I’ve seen in some national tours original cast members phoning it in with their performances, not Rapp. I had the incredible luck to see Rapp (along with the rest of the original cast) in Rent. Rapp also came to the Dallas Summer Musicals twice, first portraying Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, and then again in the Rent reunion tour along with original cast member Adam Pascal. Having seen him in these productions he just has that very rare magical “it” factor that fills the stage. He brings that once again as Lucas.

Rapp handles with a powerful, reserved intensity the dynamics of Lucas’s relationships with Liz and Beth. With one he is a former boyfriend trying to recapture that long lost love, while with other side he is gay, but a very supportive friend to her. Rapp’s dramatic work is some of the best of the entire evening, in particular in Act II when Beth reveals some devastating news to him. Rapp also has two wonderful duets from Kitt’s score, “Some Other Me” and “Best Worst Mistake”. Rapp also has a very moving solo titled “You Don’t Need to Love Me” in Act I. His chemistry with Jackie Burns (Liz/Beth) and David (Marc Delacruz) burns with truth and he brings forth the subtext with stellar results. Even after being with this show for so long, Rapp gave a superior performance like it was his opening night!

For us American Idol fans, the name Tamyra Gray will ring a bell immediately in your brain! She was in season one (the year Burleson native Kelly Clarkson won) and made it to the top ten, then the final four. Many (especially judge Simon Cowell) felt Gray was robbed and should have not been voted off. So many fans (including myself) felt that she and Clarkson should have been the final two. Since AI, Gray has gone on to a successful career in film, music, stage, and TV. In If/Then, Gray portrays Kate, a kindergarten teacher who is a lesbian and is full of life and energy. Gray’s comedic chops achieved loud roars of laughter throughout the evening. Gray has two terrific numbers in Act I, “It’s A Sign” and “A Map of New York” that allowed us to savor that rich, soprano voice. Gray is physically a ravishing beauty, she reminds you of a young Diana Ross. It was quite fascinating to hear Gray’s voice transform so smoothly from her pop/soul background from AI to a Broadway score. Her chemistry with her girlfriend Annie (Janine Divita) is loving, but you enjoy their comic banter as well. Gray also handles the dramatic path Kate goes down in Act II with raw honesty. Gray’s work in If/Then is sublime.

When Matthew Hydzik first walked into the scene in If/Then I thought to myself, “Wait. I’ve seen him before.” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks! I had seen Hydzik, not once, but twice in other musicals. He portrayed Nick in the national tour of Flashdance, and I also saw him in the critically acclaimed revival of Side Show as Buddy. Hydzik is a tall, handsome actor which works perfectly for him in If/Then as there are several references in the lyrics and book of his movie star physical features. Hydzik portrays the role of Josh, who has just returned from his second tour of duty as an Army physician. Josh immediately connects with Liz at a chance meeting at Madison Park, even though she keeps saying no to a date. Finally she agrees in a funny scene and they go on their first date. Josh reveals he left back in Nebraska an alcoholic father and joined the Army to pay his way to medical school.

Hydzik gives a commanding, superlative performance as Josh. His subtext bleeds through his acting craft with organic truth without a hint of falseness. The verisimilitude of Hydzik’s performance is spellbinding. His dramatic book scenes and songs were bathed in emotional pathos. His scene work with his co-star Ms. Burns in Act II will put tears in your eyes. He also achieves resounding success with his comical moments as well. His comedic timing and delivery received side splitting laughter from the audience. Vocally he possesses a glorious, pristine, crystal clear tenor voice that glides on his vibrato like shimmering satin. When some of his solos required him to change keys and crescendo, his vocals wafted into his higher register without a crack or break. Hydzik was given some of the best composed solos from the score, such as “You Never Know” and “Hey Kid”. He also has some first rate duets with Jackie Burns (Liz/Beth), including “I Hate You” and “Here I Go”. Matthew Hydzik gives a smashing, transcendent performance as Josh. I sincerely predict a Tony Award in his future.

This leaves us with Jackie Burns as Liz/Beth, the lone female lead in this new musical. Burns was Menzel’s Standby in the Broadway version (and did go on for her). In that strange twist of fate, Burns has also done another role that Menzel created. Burns portrayed Elphaba on Broadway in Wicked achieving critical acclaim for her performance as the apple green hued witch. But now for the national tour of If/Then, the role is all hers. Ms. Burns is physically a captivating, tall, raven haired actress with porcelain features and sparkling green eyes. She is so physically alluring it’s no wonder why Josh zeroes in on her the second he spots her at Madison Park, or why Lucas has carried a torch for her since college.

I asked Ms. Burns after the show how it was from doing the role on Broadway and now on tour. She stated it was like starting all over again. Not only in regards to changes of the sets and space, but in regards of how to re-learn the role, which resulted in her learning new facets of Liz/Beth.

Burns wears this role like a second skin. Talk about an actor’s challenge in having to transform within seconds from Liz to Beth. The musical and her character do remind you of the film Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow. But Burns handles this extremely difficult role with finesse and jaw dropping talent. There is never a moment where you don’t believe her character, Burns is always in the moment, be it comical or dramatic. Her timing, pace, and delivery with her comedy was hysterical, the girl knows how to hit comedy payola with a great one liner! But wait till you see her dramatic work, it will make your eyes fill up with tears, in particular her Act II scene work with Rapp and Hydzik. She emotionally rips open her heart and soul to the audience to see and feel her loss, love, and pain. It is riveting.

She has vivid, strong chemistry with her fellow actors. With Rapp she shows the great conflict within herself dealing with him and their past. With Hydzik she has sensual, erotic, chemistry. During their very romantic kissing scenes it got so intense I think I saw some of the gels on the lights begin to melt.

And let’s just say this now, this girl CAN SING! And I mean SING! She has a splendiferous, spine-tingling soprano voice that soars to the stratosphere. Trust me, she does not need a body mic with that kind of a voice! Her technique of able to go from pianissimo to full out belting is astonishing. Her crescendos and decrescendos are remarkable. It all rests on a muscular, steady vibrato. She also knows how to bring forth the emotions of her lyrics from deep within her heart. She has the bulk of the music, and Burns sells each number to its fullest. Some of my favorite songs sung by Burns include the duets with Hydzik such as “Here I Go” and “I Hate You”; and her duet with Rapp “Some of Me”. Her solos became show stopping numbers throughout the evening, such as “What the F***”; “You Learn To Live Without”; and her massive, 11:00 O’clock number titled “Always Starting Over”. That song required her to belt to the heavens, and she did! Kitt and Yorkey seriously need to create a new original musical just for Burns, because her talents are that remarkable and unique! Jackie Burns delivers a star making performance as Liz/Beth.

I had no expectations or really knew anything about this musical. My only knowledge of it was that it was from the same team that created Next to Normal, that it brought Menzel and Rapp back together on stage since Rent, and the number Menzel did on the Tony awards telecast. I don’t even have the cast recording. So I walked in with a clean slate, and I’m glad I did. While it was difficult at first to grasp the book, once I did it was such an emotional ride. From the score to the performances. The work created by Burns, Hydzik, Gray, and Rapp does punch you hard into your heart. The staging and the book for the final scene will grip your heart and fill it with great joy and puts a lump in your throat.

No, this is not some big, splashy spectacle that has tons of rhinestone, sequined costumes, or dancers tapping feverishly, or large, special effects. But instead it is a musical that forces you to concentrate on the book, lyrics, and performances. This is a banquet for those of us who love musical theater. Even a novice or a first time attendee at a musical will totally enjoy it. It’s so rare nowadays that musicals like this go out on tour once they leave Broadway. Producers tend to focus on just the profits, not the art form of musical theater. So you MUST and I mean MUST go see this production of If/Then. Why? Because you will never see it done this way not only in design elements, but especially in the performances of the entire company! It’s a once in a lifetime experience you will never forget. The emotions and the work by the cast will stay with way past the curtain call.

Through January 31, 2016, performed at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, 75201

Box office number: 214.880.0202
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