Tuesday, 15 December 2015

If/Then, Hollywood Pantages, Los Angeles

It's rare for there to be old-fashioned Broadway Star-vehicles. Hell, it's rare for there to be old-fashioned Broadway Stars (the industry doesn't work like that any more - long-running shows like "Phantom", "Les Mis", "The Lion King", "Wicked" require highly talented performers, but highly talented performers that can be swapped out and who are never bigger brands than the show itself).

The massive ovation as Idina Menzel appears in a spotlight with the words "Hi, it's me" suggest she's an exception. And indeed, this is a show that is very much built on one lead peformer, exploiting her particular skills of a big belting voice and a determined yet slightly neurotic manner. The show built on those foundations isn't a bad one either - a modern tale of a woman returning to New York after a failed marriage, looking for what her next step is. If the simple divide of choosing career or romance seems a tad schematic (and the playing out of both possible scenarios is the rest of the show, as Menzel switches instantaneously between glasses-wearing-romantic Liz and non-glasses-wearing professional Beth), it never the less gives rise to a wide range of interesting scenarios, staged sharply and smoothly under Michael Grief's tight direction. If some of the plot developments wander a little close to melodrama (and one or two feel like they happen overly fast - Liz acquires a second child that the script kinda requires the audience to intuit backwards from events that happen after the birth, rather than actually establishing it clearly at the time it happens), it's never the less an eventful evening.

Composer Tom Kitt and Lyricist/scriptwriter Brian Yorkey's previous show is "Next to Normal", reviewed in the Hayes Theatre production at the beginning of the year. And while "Next to Normal" is undoubtedly the more "important" work (looking at mental illness and how we handle it), while "If/Then" is a lighter work that could easily be seen as about self-indulgent fourtysomethings, I have to be honest that "If/Then" plays as more relateable to my life - no, it isn't as big and dramatic, but you get a broad sense of a person working through real-life dilemmas. It does very slightly feel like a follow-up to "Rent" (partially the combination of Menzel and Anthony Rapp, with Rapp playing a friend who still is attached to Menzel (same as Rent) living in New York (same as Rent) involved in political protests (same as Rent) and who hasn't quite shed his immaturity (same as Rent). That, of course, isn't a particular challenge to me as I am of the generation for whom Rent was our show, about our generation ... and "If/Then" is just as much about my generation as we grow older, face more adult challenges, and live with the consequences of what our previous choices have left us with.

LaChanze, as Menzel's more impulsive friend, brings great energy to her role and is funny and heartfelt, while James Snyder as her lover in one of the alternative timelines is sweetly devotional and also sings like a powerhouse.

In all, this is an impressive, modern show that has a powerhouse performance at the centre and a real energetic swing and vibe to it that make it irresistable to me.

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