Wright State University delivers a terrifically acted and vocally stunning local premiere of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey’s thought-provoking yet conceptually challenging 2014 pop/rock musical If/Then.
Newly divorced urban city planner Elizabeth (dynamic Rachel Mary Green) is back in New York City and it doesn’t take long before she’s in Madison Square Park catching up with her old bisexual friend Lucas (charmingly quirky Sam Maxwell), a community activist, and her new friend and neighbor Kate (delightfully sassy Kat Rodriguez), a kindergarten teacher. When the time comes for Elizabeth to choose her next step, to search for true love as Kate suggests or embrace her professional ambitions as Lucas suggests, the musical simultaneously explores both paths. The joy, surprise and heartbreak of marriage, career, family, and friendships are ultimately bolstered by the core themes of choice and fate.
Kitt and Yorkey, best known for their 2009 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, create a highly intricate, predominately sung-through framework requiring the utmost concentration, especially since Elizabeth is referred as Liz (with glasses) and Beth (no glasses). There’s also the peculiar issue of the Liz path being more emotionally engaging primarily due to her loving connection with military doctor Josh (cheerful Eric Thompson), whose gentle, hopeful, humble, and understanding presence heightens the action as important issues of parenthood and duty intertwine. Nevertheless, in spite of inherent confusion and an overstuffed Act 2, both paths, fluidly guided with character-driven potency within the intimacy of the Herbst Theatre by director Jamie Cordes, offer intriguing approaches to addressing the central question: what if?
The last time I saw If/Then, during Broadway previews, Idina Menzel took the stage with notecards having received new lyrics that very day, so I admire Green’s ability to tackle a very complex and demanding role with effortlessly confident and fierce aplomb, marvelously culminating in a life-affirming, full-belting rendition of Always Starting Over. Rodriguez, flirty and fun, is also a vocal powerhouse, specifically leading energetic ensemble number It’s a Sign in addition to joining Green, choreographer Megan Arseneau (pleasant as Anne, Kate’s underwritten girlfriend) and Emily Eliasen (Elena, Beth’s underwritten co-worker) for the Act 1 standout No More Wasted Time. Thompson, one of the finest pop tenors in the Miami Valley, absolutely captivates in his renditions of You Never Know and the beautifully tender Hey Kid. Maxwell, in one of his most vulnerable portrayals, is especially strong opposite amiable Hunter Minor as David, Lucas’ boyfriend, joining forces for a wonderfully heartfelt interpretation of the driving duet The Best Worst Mistake You Ever Made. The praiseworthy cast includes Dylan Tacker (career-driven Stephen) and ensemble members Amanda Astorga, Emma Bratton, Marcus Butts, Jessica Greenwald, Andrea Gutierrez, Jared Levy, Aidan Lord, Dean McKenzie, Jake Siwek, Anna Stanford, Jeremy Weinstein, and D’Kaylah Whitley.
In addition to the aforementioned Arseneau (instilling organic joy for It’s a Sign and The Moment Explodes among others), Cordes’ first-rate artistic team includes set designer Carleigh Siebert (projections are a plus), lighting designer Gabe Reichert (great evocative work), sound designer James Dunlap (superbly accenting a pivotal airplane sequence), costume designer Victoria Gifford (supplying cool, contemporary attire), and musical director/keyboardist Melissa Yanchak (accompanied by guitarists Jay Brunner and Joel Greenberg).
Some theatergoers may find If/Then too complicated to fully enjoy, but it’s a worthwhile experience nonetheless thanks to particularly superb vocal talent.
If/Then concludes Sunday, March 3 at 2 p.m. in the Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Dayton. Act 1: 80 minutes; Act 2: 60 minutes. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $5 for students. Call (937) 775-2500 or visit wright.edu/theatre-tickets.