The question continually posed by If/Then, the strong yet unfinished musical trying out at the National Theatre before it heads to Broadway, is what if? To what extent can a decision made in the blink of an eye impact the course of a life? This concept—not exactly an unfamiliar one thanks to movies such as Sliding Doors, from which If/Then appears to borrow a substantial amount of its story—can start to feel gimmicky throughout the course of the show, particularly given the heavy-handed lighting used to clarify the narrative. But these are just minor quibbles compared to the showstopping performances on display. As far as opportunities to see stars belting out songs go, this one goes gangbusters.
Directed by Michael Greif, If/Then stars Idina Menzel (Rent, Wicked) as Elizabeth, a 39-year-old city planner who moves to New York after ending her loveless marriage, and whose life subsequently splits into two forks after she decides whether to listen to a musician (Sexy Guitar Guy, a title Tyler McGee needs to put on his résumé) play in Madison Square Park. Carefree, stop-and-smell-the-roses/listen-to-the-music Elizabeth becomes Liz, who’s still neurotic and obsessed with quantifying all her options but lets loose enough to go on a date with Josh (James Snyder), a handsome doctor back from his second tour with the Army. Uptight Elizabeth becomes Beth, gets a fantastic job, falls into an unhappy relationship of sorts with her bisexual best friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), almost dies in a plane crash, and ends up successful and miserable after all that leaning in.
Liz/Beth’s different stories are illustrated by lighting effects—cold blue for Beth, warm red for Liz. It’s a device that feels like it was added last minute for clarity, and it detracts a little from the spectacular set by Mark Wendland, above which trees loom over the stage and stars and neon maps of the New York City subway appear as if from nowhere. The show is at its strongest when Liz and Beth’s worlds collide, as they do at the end of the first act at a birthday party on a rooftop when both versions of Elizabeth find themselves pregnant by a different man (again, Sliding Doors).
Early in the show, the character of Elizabeth feels clichéd, what with her extreme anal retentiveness and her constant attempts to calculate decisions out of numbers. “I’m not sure how to quantify sexy,” she tells her friend Kate, plated by the spectacular LaChanze, who won a Tony for her role in The Color Purple. But as Liz and Beth emerge, Menzel does a good job showing how each character changes—Liz becoming more open and accepting, and Beth hardening to the point where she impulsively kisses her boss (Jerry Dixon). Decisions have consequences, we’re told over and over again, and Liz/Beth’s different paths demonstrably affect not only her own life but also the lives of those around her.
If/when the philosophizing gets a bit much, the songs are ample compensation. The music and lyrics are by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the team behind the Tony-winning show Next to Normal, and while there are a few duds (through no fault of Rapp’s, “Ain’t No Man Manhattan” is a dullard), Lucas’s “You Don’t Need to Love Me” is a genuine heartbreaker, as is Liz’s “Learn to Live Without.” Rapp, best known for playing dorky Mark alongside Menzel in the Broadway and film versions of Rent (the former of which was also directed by Greif), is unexpectedly charming as even more dorky Lucas, a hapless and crunchy housing activist whose happiness is intertwined so tightly with Liz/Beth’s own. And as winsome and kindhearted Josh, Snyder is exceptional, managing to save his too-good-to-be-true Army doctor from becoming boring and delivering his solo numbers—especially “Hey Kid”—with chops galore.
But it’s Menzel’s musical, and everyone else is just living in it. The Idina superfans you’ll almost certainly run into in the ladies’ room at intermission already know all the lyrics, and understandably so—the way she delivers her songs is just thrilling to watch, even if she seems to be holding back a little in the first act. One imagines it’s hard to play a character as unshowy and awkward as Liz/Beth while simultaneously winning over the whole of the audience in the National’s 1,676-seat theater, but Menzel does it, and also manages countless costume changes while flitting between Liz and Beth. If/Then is a long way from perfect—the choreography by Larry Keigwin in particular feels alarmingly clunky—but it’s definitely captivating at moments, thanks to some lovely songs and a deservedly acclaimed star.
If/Then is at the National Theatre through December 8. Running time is about two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($58 to $228) are available via the National Theatre’s website.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner once told National Geographic that what got him his role as Theo on The Cosby Show was his ability to take direction. It’s a skill he’s been using a lot during rehearsals for Arena Stage’s upcoming production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a new theatrical adaptation of the 1967 movie that starred Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy. Warner plays Poitier’s character, John, a doctor who arrives to meet the parents of his white fiancée and is obliged to deal with the fallout over their interracial relationship from both sides of the family.
The adaptation by Todd Kriedler (based on the original screenplay by William Rose) was first staged in a 2012 production at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre directed by Broadway and television regular Kenny Leon. While some of the original cast members remain, Warner is a newcomer to the show, along with director David Esbjornson. We talked with Warner about reinventing a classic 50 years after it first reached audiences, returning to theater, and how his cultural heritage helped him prepare for the role.
When did the opportunity of being in this show come up, and what appealed to you about it?
It was a couple of months ago, back when Kenny Leon was still involved, and it was one of those situations where there really isn’t a whole lot to think about. It’s kind of like, Yeah, sure, I’ll read the script first but I’m probably going to say yes anyway. It’s a great opportunity to take this classic movie and reprise it onstage, and of course having grown up with and been so inspired by Sidney Poitier, it’s an honor to be able to do a role of his.
In the film your character, John, is pretty much beyond reproach—he’s this amazing ideal of a man. Is he the same way in the play?
I think those attributes still remain in terms of his accomplishments as a doctor. But we also have an opportunity [to do more], because the racial climate when the movie came out meant there was only so far they could take it, and they had to tread lightly with the subject matter. Though we’re not making it a heavy story, exactly, we do have the opportunity to deal with the seriousness of the issue and the seriousness of everyone’s reactions to it. With my character in particular there’s the chance to go a little deeper into his life and his relationship with his father, so there’s another dimension to it. Here’s this guy with all these accomplishments, but his parents’ approval is still very important to him. There’s a great dynamic that we get to deal with in his having to stand up to his father in terms of the personal decisions he makes, and there’s a great emotional journey we get to take with the character that we didn’t get to see in the movie.
Fifty years ago, when this movie came out, the culture was obviously enormously different. Have you talked together as a cast about how you not necessarily keep it from being dated, but how you can make it connect with contemporary audiences?
I think what makes it more compelling is the fact that we’re not treading lightly with the material or the subject matter. Though the humor and the wit is still there because it’s in the script, we’re not playing anything for comedy.
Then again, 50 years ago people probably would have hoped we’d be a lot further along than we are now.
Definitely. We still live in a world where people claim to be liberals, but then when they come face to face with something it turns out they’re not as liberal as they purported to be.
What’s it like being back in the theater world?
I love it. Theater is definitely my favorite platform. Television is definitely my favorite paycheck, however. But the concept of being able to actually spend time developing a character with the same actors, and to have a couple of weeks together on the floor—there’s a certain texture that happens that you can’t find written on the page, or in the way sitcoms are shot with one day of rehearsal.
When was the last time you did theater?
About six years ago. I started out in theater. I think every actor worth his salt revisits theater every few years.
What have you taken from the rehearsal process so far?
Some of the cast did the production in Atlanta, but because David [Esbjornson] has come in, he’s coming at it with a very different approach from the movie and from the earlier stage production of the play. Even for cast members who’ve done the show, there’s a deprogramming to do to work with this new interpretation.
Did you do anything in particular to prepare for your role?
Of course I’ve watched the movie again, and I’m watching different movies from that time period in the ‘60s, and listening to music, and doing some research in terms of reading. The ’60s are really a period that I’ve spent my life reading about. My father named me after Malcolm X and Ahmad Jamal, and from six, seven years old he was making me read about Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Marian Anderson, because he wanted me to have a real sense of my history and where I came from. So the ’60s are a very familiar period for me.
You talked a little bit about David Esbjornson coming in and taking over from Kenny Leon. Was that disruptive at all?
It’s not disruptive so much as it’s exciting. On the one hand, the cast who’ve done the show before have a slight advantage, but with David’s different take, everyone’s at square one. It’s really evened out the playing field.
How are you liking being in Washington?
It’s great, but I see the theater, my apartment, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Target. That’s the extent of my Washington visit so far. But my band has played here several times, and I have friends here, so I’ve hung out in the city before.
What’s next for you after this?
I’m in the middle of finishing up this third CD with my band, so between this show and the music I’m pretty focused. Then, when I finish up here it’s back to LA for the pilot-season grind.
What do you hope people take away from the show?
I think people who are familiar with the movie are going to be pleasantly surprised with the depths to which David’s taken it. I think people will definitely be able to relate to the concept of a liberal being forced to face how they may not be that liberal after all. I think the play still speaks to that issue.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is at Arena Stage November 29 through January 5. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena’s website.
It might sound like an uncomfortable medical checkup, but a “sitzprobe” is actually a defining moment in the life of a new musical—it’s when the composers, cast, and orchestra come together to perform the work together in its entirety for the first time.
On October 31, the crew behind If/Then got together at the National Theatre for the musical’s sitzprobe, and the event was captured on video (see below). The world premiere show is currently having its first run of previews at the National Theatre before it heads to Broadway next year, and stars Tony winner Idina Menzel of Rent and Wicked fame as a 40-year-old city planner who moves to New York for a new adventure. If/Then has book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, who last collaborated on the Tony-winning musical Next to Normal. (That show was directed by Michael Greif, who’s also directing If/Then, and who directed Menzel when she originated the role of Maureen in Rent.)
If/Then also stars Rent’s Anthony Rapp as Lucas, The Color Purple’s LaChanze as Kate, and James Snyder as Josh. Tickets ($53 and up) are available via the National Theatre’s website.
OPENING THIS MONTH
Through November 24, Signature Theatre presents The Crossing, the world premiere of a new musical by Matt Conner (The Hollow) and Grace Barnes, who also collaborated on 2006’s Nevermore. Eric Schaeffer directs.
Also through November 24, Washington Stage Guild presents Inventing Van Gogh, a fusion of theater and art by Steven Dietz that imagines a painter asked to forge a work by van Gogh who’s then confronted by the artist himself.
November 4 through December 1, Woolly Mammoth stages the local premiere of Appropriate, Washington-born playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkin’s acclaimed play about a family returning to a dusty plantation in Arkansas.
November 5 through December 8, the National Theatre hosts the pre-Broadway premiere of If/Then, a musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt starring Idina Menzel (Wicked) as a 40-year-old woman who moves to New York for a fresh start.
November 7 through 23, Pinky Swear Productions presents Bondage, David Henry Hwang’s play about the relationship between a Los Angeles dominatrix and her client.
November 9 through 24, Shakespeare Theatre hosts Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s 2012 adaptation of the Strindberg play set in post-apartheid South Africa. Farber directs.
November 13 through December 29, Studio Theatre stages the first two plays in Richard Nelson’s quartet about the Apples: That Hopey Changey Thing, set on the eve of the midterm election during Obama’s first term, and Sweet and Sad, about the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
November 14 through December 29, Olney Theatre stages The King and I, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical about the King of Siam and his relationship with a British schoolteacher.
November 15 through December 29, Maurice Hines returns to Arena Stage in Tappin’ Thru Life, a show recounting his and his brother Gregory’s life in dance. The show features the Manzari Brothers, whom Hines discovered while he was auditioning for his last Arena Show, Sophisticated Ladies.
Opening November 21 at Shakespeare Theatre is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning 1966 musical farce set in ancient Rome.
Through December 15, Theater Alliance stages White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, an experimental play featuring a different actor for each performance.
Ford’s Theatre, whose production of acclaimed documentary theater work The Laramie Project fell victim to the government shutdown when the company was booted from its performance space, will be allowed to return to the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site starting tomorrow. The agreement is thanks to a $25,000 donation from billionaire businessman Ronald Perelman.
Although Ford’s Theatre Society is a privately funded nonprofit institution, it shares the use of the Ford’s Theatre site with the National Park Service. The theater is designated as a National Historic Site because President Lincoln was shot there by actor John Wilkes Booth in 1865. During the last government shutdown Ford’s was able to continue hosting performances at the site, but the company was informed that the space would be closed on the day The Laramie Project was supposed to have its opening-night performance.
The company hosted a performance for press in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre rehearsal space and a handful of subsequent shows at the First Congregational United Church of Christ. Reports estimated that the move would cost Ford’s Theatre around $100,000 a week in lost ticket revenue. The show was devised by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project in 2000, and delves into the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and how it affected the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.
Paul Tetreault, the director of Ford’s Theatre Society, met with officials from the National Park Service this weekend and discussed whether the society might be able to use the Ford’s Theatre space if it paid for the operation of the site itself. Similar maneuvers have been made by states to allow national parks to open in Utah, Colorado, New York, and Arizona.
Perelman, who is estimated by Forbes to be America’s 26th richest individual, is chairman and CEO of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, as well as founding sponsor of Ford’s Theatre’s Lincoln Legacy Project, an initiative that aims to foster tolerance and civil communication. His personal wealth is estimated at upward of $12 billion.
Ford’s Theatre will present The Laramie Project through October 27. Tickets for all performances are $25. Read our review of the production here.
Paul Downs Colaizzo was an unknown 26-year-old when his Really Really debuted at Signature Theatre last year, becoming one of the most successful shows in Signature’s history. (The uncomfortably accurate portrait of an entitled group of college students later opened off-Broadway in a production starring Zosia Mamet of HBO’s Girls.) His new play, Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill, premieres at Signature October 15 through December 8, starring Christine Lahti and directed by Michael Kahn. Here’s a conversation with Colaizzo.
How would you describe the new play? It’s a family drama, and it explores pride and shame and the veneer of life in the suburbs, although stylistically it’s still funny and dark. I had to write a description of it once—it was very labored but said, “In a gated community where having fat daughters can discredit an entire family, one woman is confronted with the cracks in her family’s foundation.” It’s about living somewhere where your community is your entire world.
What was the inspiration? I grew up all over, and the last place I lived before going to college was Alpharetta, Georgia. There was a neighborhood called the Falls of Autry Mill, and it just sounded like a woman falling down, so that was the jumping-off point. The South has a way of worshipping appearances—the suburbs are all about presentation and amazing flowers and a beautiful yard and dinner parties that impress people and having the Christmas lights just right.
And Michael Kahn is directing? That man is so smart. In our first meeting, he’d basically memorized the play, and he had such insight into the characters and was so collaborative and patient with me through the auditions. The word of mouth is that he’s one of the greats, and I’m certainly experiencing that.
How did the success of Really Really affect you? Well, I can eat, and I wasn’t always able to before, so that’s a nice change. I’m in LA right now working on TV projects, so more doors have opened, but I’m trying to keep my feet in theater because that’s what I love first.
Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill. Oct. 15 to Dec. 8 at Signature Theatre. Tickets ($40 to $94) at signature-theatre.org.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
It might be stretching things a little to say that the government shutdown is making Washington nostalgic for the simpler days of Queen and country, but the mood sure was pro-Britain at last night’s Harman Center for the Arts Gala. The honoree: Elizabeth McGovern, a.k.a. Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora. The emcee: plummy-voiced actor Edward Hibbert. The closing act: Beatles tribute band 1964. The post performance dinner menu: saddle of lamb, Yorkshire pudding, and a trio of desserts including spotted dick (yes, really).
McGovern might be best known these days for starring in the hit British show about a family of landed gentry in the early 20th century, but before she set sail for England just like her aristocratic character she studied classical acting at Juilliard under none other than Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn. “He was one of my teachers, one of my favorites, and I’m not just saying that,” she said. (Kahn himself was recently given the title of honorary commander of the British Empire for his services to the arts by Queen Elizabeth.)
Each year, Shakespeare Theatre celebrates one outstanding performer at its annual gala, awarding him or her the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre in a performance that also cuts a broad swathe across the performing arts. Last night’s event featured standout acts such as 12-year-old cellist Sujari Britt playing Edward Elgar; Joffrey Ballet soloists Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani performing an astonishing pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain; and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato singing an aria from Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda followed by “Danny Boy,” in honor of the Irish heritage she shares with McGovern.
Despite the fact that Ford's Theatre Society is a private institution, it's the latest casualty of the government shutdown. The company, which was scheduled to host its opening-night production of The Laramie Project in the historic theater tonight, has been informed that it won't be allowed to use the space while the shutdown continues.
Although the company is privately funded and maintained, it operates within the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, which is managed by the National Park Service (all national parks and national park sites are currently closed). During previous government shutdowns, Ford's was able to go ahead with its performances as usual. Unfortunately, despite mixed messages it's received over the past few days, Ford's has now been made aware that it won't be able to use the theater space while the government is closed.
Tonight's opening night performance of The Laramie Project has been moved to Woolly Mammoth Theatre's rehearsal space, with no word yet on future performances. The show is timed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man whose murder in 1998 shocked the country and led to new federal laws regarding hate crimes.
Devised by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, the show explores the reactions to and aftermath of Shepard's death, using a documentary theater approach to reenact courtroom testimony, other moments from the trial, and interviews with Shepard's friends and family. Ford's current production, directed by Signature Theatre's Matthew Gardiner, is part of the institution's Lincoln Legacy Project, an initiative that uses theater, educational programs, and other events to promote tolerance and respectful dialogue.
Theater J certainly has a gift for uniting the political with the personal, as seen in its engrossing season opener, After The Revolution.
Amy Herzog’s play explores how the Joseph family’s dynamics interact with its history of political persecution. Emma Joseph (Megan Anderson) is the daughter of radical Marxists, though she’s the only member of her generation to have followed in her family’s politically active footsteps. Her passion is the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose treatment after being accused of shooting a Philadelphia police officer has been questioned by many civil-rights activists.
She’s tied the case’s social justice implications to the treatment of her blacklisted grandfather during the era of McCarthyism, and raises funds for the cause. But when new information about her grandfather’s behavior comes to life—information her father, Ben (Peter Birkenhead), has kept secret for years—Emma has to deal with the implications it has on her career, her cause, her relationship with her family, and her personal life.
In Torch Song Trilogy, currently playing at Studio Theatre in a heartfelt production by Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn, it’s telling that protagonist Arnold’s drag queen persona sports a modest vintage dress and a 1940s, Andrews Sisters-style wig rather than sequins and size-12 platform heels. For all his brash stories and double entendres, Arnold, played impeccably by Brandon Uranowitz, is a true romantic at heart, and something of an anachronism in New York City’s pre-AIDS gay scene. He moons about his apartment, staring at a rotary phone that maddeningly refuses to ring, and in one terrifically funny scene, manages to form an unlikely emotional attachment to an anonymous guy who’s just manhandled him (and more) in the back room of a bar.
That bar shares a title (“The International Stud”) with the first act in Harvey Fierstein’s three-play trilogy, which won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play and remains resolutely charming 30 years later. Bundled together, the three hour-long pieces trace Arnold’s evolution from a needy, angsty, wistful lost soul to a matriarchal tour de force, with enough heartbreak along the way to furnish a Dolly Parton record.
Kahn also manages to make each one quite distinct, theatrically: “Stud” is a series of monologues where Arnold regularly breaks the fourth wall; “Fugue in a Nursery” features conversations but is set entirely within the confines of a giant bed; and the last play, “Widows and Children First,” is set in Arnold’s home and is almost sitcom-like in its faux-naturalism.