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New York City Theater

Richard Rodgers Theater

Somewhere in between Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” lies “If/Then,” the ill-defined new musical about how lives might have turned out if this, not that, path were followed. Throw in J. B. Priestley, the master playwright about the vagaries of time and place and you have a work rife with possibilities. Indeed, one of the libretto’s lines, “The next corner you turn may change your life,” echoes Priestley’s “Dangerous Corner.”

These worthy progenitors made their speculations matter. As written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), authors of the brilliant Pulitzer winner, “Next to Normal,” and directed by Michael Greif, who also guided that earlier show, “If/Then” spins its wheels. Even the astonishing 11 o/clock number, “Always Starting Over,” brings us back, full circle. The message, finally, is grab every opportunity and “love while you can.”

Dealing intriguingly with feeling vs. knowing, the show fails to follow through. Too bad, since this is one of a handful of musicals not based on other sources.

Our heroine Elizabeth (sometimes known as Beth, other times as Liz) has a choice: Answer the phone or not. Become a teacher or a city planner. Marry this guy or have an affair with that. Whatever her path, she encounters the same people, more or less transformed by her decisions. But what might have been an epistemological tale soon devolves into a monumentally uninvolving one. So much more emphasis is given to the city planning career that the teaching one is neglected and tension between the two is dissipated.

Its chief commercial appeal is bound to be its star, Tony winner (for “Wicked”) Idina Menzel who made a splash at the Oscars singing “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” And, yes, let’s not forget how John Travolta mangled her name when introducing her, a further boost to her fame.

Her popularity should be enough to insure a healthy run. Yet Menzel, despite her uncanny, powerful, shake-the-walls voice and charmingly empathetic presence, is hampered by a libretto that barely delineates her characters. Her co-stars sometimes fare better, since they’re not being torn hither and yon by the story. LaChanze is a bountiful, vivacious lesbian, Anthony Rapp an ingratiating best friend and James Snyder a patient, loving boyfriend. Indeed, it’s Snyder who stops the show with his song, “Somewhere” and digs into emotions with a hymn to his new-born son.

Much care has been expended on this ambitious musical. Unfortunately, instead of a revelatory evening, we have to settle for promises unfulfilled.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 7, 2014

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