If/Then at the National Theatre

Saturday night Paul and I headed down to DC to see If/Then at the National Theatre. We got enjoy dinner with our friends Ed and Kate, who live in DC, prior to the performance. We don’t see them that often so it was nice to get a chance to catch up with them in person rather than social media for a change.

If/Then is currently in an out-of-town tryout run in DC prior to heading to Broadway where it will enter previews there starting in March. The show stars Idina Menzel, who was in the original Broadway cast of Rent and who won a Tony for her performance as Elphaba in Wicked. If you aren’t familiar with theatre, but watch Glee you may also know her as the woman who played Rachel’s mom. The show also stars Anthony Rapp, who co-starred in the original Broadway production of Rent with Menzel. I saw Rent during its run in the West End in London. Many of the original cast members went over for its initial run including Rapp, but Menzel wasn’t one of them so I was excited to finally see her in a live performance. I was not disappointed in that at all. She was amazing as I expected. In fact I would say that most of the cast was good and doing the best with what they had to work with, which is where there are issues. Many, many issues. This show definitely needs some work before it transitions to Broadway. I doubt anyone involved with the show will read this post, but just in case I have some notes for you.

The premise of the show is kind of a Sliding Doors-esque story in which Menzel’s character Elizabeth makes a choice that sets her life on one trajectory and in an alternate storyline makes a different choice and sends her life off onto a different path. Even though I knew that was the premise going into the show I totally did not pick up on when the split in the stories happened right away and kept waiting for that to happen only to realize a song or two later that it had happened. Then I spent much of the rest of the first act trying to figure out what pieces of the story went with which timeline. Did she meet this guy in the same timeline as this job or not? Is her friendship with this other guy possibly more than that with this other job? It was all very confusing for awhile. If your audience can’t figure out what you’re doing even when they’re expecting it, then you have a problem. And I definitely wasn’t the only one. I overheard many conversations during intermission indicating the same thing. At least I was better off than the person sitting behind me who apparently only figured out that there were two story lines during the final song of Act I. Yikes!

They did try to differentiate the two story lines, but obviously not well enough. First, in one story line Menzel’s character is referred to as Beth and the other one as Liz. Since her name isn’t used all the time and I wasn’t necessarily thinking this is super important to keep track of at the beginning, I missed it. Each scene when the timelines changed there would be some backlighting at the start of the scene in red for one timeline and in blue for other. I honestly would never have caught on to that except for the guy behind us mentioning it at intermission. I then was able to notice it during the second act, but had it not been for that guy’s comments I never would have picked up on it. I think they need to do something a bit more obvious with her character like pull her hair back or put her in different colored blazers based on which timeline she’s in to make it more obvious. I think the other problem is that the split occurs in the middle of a song that then goes back and forth between the two stories that at that point were not differentiated enough for me to pick up on that was what was happening. I literally thought we were just in different days in the same timeline. It would be more helpful I think if they had a single song or scene for one timeline and then made it abundantly clear that she made a different decision that sent her off into another direction in an entirely different scene.

The inability to follow the story is only one of this show’s problems though. Aside from one or two songs I thought that many of the songs in the show sounded too much alike and they were pretty much all very forgettable. Additionally, for a show with two former Rent cast members there were too many things that felt like they were drawn from Rent. Hey Anthony Rapp’s character is a squatter fighting off the building of some commercial building and fighting for the rights of people who can’t afford to live in New York City. Wonder where I’ve seen that before? Also there were multiple conversations between two of the secondary characters who happened to be lesbians where one of them cheats on the other and claims to love the other one but also really likes having sex with other people. Hmm, sound familiar to anyone else?

With a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes including intermission the show is also just too long for what it is. I was getting antsy about 20 minutes before it ended, and I wasn’t the only one. I saw someone in front of me pull out their phone and check the time at about the same point. I could certainly recommend some scenes that could easily be cut without changing the story too much. It needs to be tightened up a little bit.

There was also a set malfunction during our performance. One scene is set in Idina Menzel’s apartment which has multiple rooms on a stage that can rotate as she moves through them. At one point she moves from one room into the bathroom except that when she moved and started to sing the next song she got about half a line in and realize the stage wasn’t actually stopping and thus she spun right past the audience and was singing into the wings. She just started cracking up and walked back around to the front. She handled it all with aplomb. She kept the audience entertained for a couple minutes while they figured things out and then jumped right back into character to continue on with the show. I was highly amused that as she was about to start she decided to reset the scene for the audience by saying now imagine I was just kissing a really hot guy who wasn’t my husband, totally referring to her actual husband Taye Diggs, who is indeed a really hot guy.

For as much criticism as I’ve thrown at the show in this blog post I didn’t hate it. I think it has some potential, but it’s definitely not there yet. I enjoyed Menzel’s performance immensely, and if nothing else I hope they figure things out to give the show a decent run on Broadway just so people can enjoy her in live theatre again.

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