Since the early days of Broadway, there have been a handful of leading ladies who have outshined the competition. These women represent the paradigm of a triple-threat in singing, acting and dancing. This group of stars includes the likes of Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli and Patti LuPone. These names are recognizable throughout the globe as masters of their craft.
Following the opening of “If/Then,” Idina Menzel has more than earned her membership into this Broadway diva club.
The new musical, directed by Michael Greif with libretto by Brian Yorkey and score by Tom Kitt, follows the life of Elizabeth Vaughn (Menzel) as she moves back to New York City after a nasty divorce. On the brink of turning 40, Elizabeth is searching for a new direction in life. In a modern theatrical twist, Elizabeth is presented with two directions with entirely different outcomes.
The complex story is well-fleshed out by Yorkey’s excellent libretto and is aided by intelligent directorial choices by Greif. In some scenes, Menzel portrays Liz, whose journey begins when she decides to stay in Central Park one day and meets Josh (a solid James Snyder), a doctor from the Army who has just returned from his second tour of duty.
The other path follows Beth, who leaves the park on that same day and eventually lands a job in the city planner’s office.
The plot takes off from there, following the two divergent story lines. Both Beth and Liz are played by Menzel, who makes the character distinction by wearing glasses when portraying Liz. The story focuses on how every single decision affects both our lives and the lives of those around us.
Elizabeth experiences these two different life paths with a support group by her side, including old college friend Lucas (the ever-charming Anthony Rapp), new acquaintance Kate (a fiercely funny LaChanze) and Kate’s girlfriend Anne (Jenn Colella). Every choice Elizabeth makes impacts her friends as well.
While the skeleton of the show is solid, what really holds the show together is Menzel. The moment she stepped on stage, her mere presence was met with thunderous applause. From then on, she roared through the show with such a beautiful mix of subtlety and power. She demonstrated a masterful display of a wide range of emotions, all the while powering through the score with her top-notch vocals.
What adds to the show is an absolutely brilliant set design by Mark Wendland. The set is meticulously intricate, with a ceiling made of mirrors, which provides beautiful reflections throughout certain scenes. The base of the stage spins 360 degrees and has a series of small lights that create artistic patterns during musical numbers. Finally, there is a second level comprised of a catwalk and a series of fire escapes.
The set provides a backdrop that is so perfectly New York. While Elizabeth tries desperately to find her way in life, the set flips and turns and sets her off in different directions. When the musical finally comes to a close, we have traveled back full circle.
“If/Then” does not need exquisite metaphors or complicated symbolism to comment on life. Instead, the show naturally shows the progress of a normal woman trying to find her place in this ever-changing world that we live in.
For once, a Broadway show wears its heart on its sleeve. It reminds us all that we always have options and that, for better or worse, life works itself out.