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Theater Review: “If/Then” at the National Theatre

Idina Menzel stars in this powerful if unpolished musical, which stops in Washington before it heads to Broadway.

Idina Menzel as Elizabeth and James Snyder as Josh in the world premiere of If/Then at the National Theatre. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

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.