If/Then: singing and dancing what might have been and what could be
by Drew Rowsome -
I'm afraid to let you in but the only thing more frightening is to ask what might have been
If/Then explores two examples of "what might have been" when, as happens every second, one makes a seemingly simple decision that affects the rest of one's life. Fortunately, this is a musical, it seems that if love is fated, it will happen.
The first half of If/Then is half musical comedy and half love letter to New York City. The NYC tourist board should be underwriting this musical: the city is a sunny place where love, opportunity and dancers bursting into song are around every corner. The set is extraordinarily evocative with maps and grids projected and reflected in the very design and emphasizing the choices the characters make as they navigate through life. It is quite brilliant and makes one ache to visit this NYC.
The musical comedy nestled in this first half love letter is endlessly compelling. There are two timelines based on Elizabeth's choice: one where she is "Liz" and one where she is "Beth." It sounds complicated, but the clever ways the two are distinguished adds a certain suspense and encourages engagement. The clues are in the score, the lighting, the costumes, the very posture of the characters, and at one point in a birthday banner. There are many moments that surprise and startle but never disrupt the flow of the storylines. Even the most predictable moment, a death that is foreshadowed unsubtly, is presented in such a way that it takes on an emotional heft that shook me and silenced the theatre.
The characters in the first half - 90 minutes that felt like 15 - are uniformly witty and speak in a wonderful gay New Yorker style that is sassy, packed with topical references (the setting seems to be the recent past with a good dose of the '80s) and lightly satirical. There are many laugh-out-loud lines but the audience roared at the song "What the Fuck?" that, to its credit is actually more than a cheap laugh at an overused obscenity. The characters are brittle but have hearts that are hidden barely beneath the surface. Those hearts come out in the second half where everyone gets a big number of heartache or joy or that prickly combination of the two.
Anthony Rapp and Marc Delacruz dodge and feint with "Best Worst Mistake" and their romantic relationship and fear of a relationship is the emotional heart of the show. Matthew Hydzik celebrates the joy and terror of becoming a father in the showstopping and tear-inducing "Hey Kid," and the extra-sassy lesbian couple amplify Rapp and Delacruz's number, and the show's biggest theme, with "Love While You Can." By contrast the number exploring heterosexual love is "I Hate You."
The secondary characters really shine with Tamyra Gray as the flaky/wise neighbour effortlessly upends the cliché of the gay neighbour/Rhoda Morgenstern and creates a full person (with another extraordinary voice) whose timeline deserves to be followed. Rapp (Without You) has a tricky, finicky character (bisexuality rears its ugly head) but his natural charisma transcends so he never fades into the shadows. Daren A Herbert (Do You Want What I Have Got?, Once On This Island) tries to dampen his sexual appeal but I'm sure I wasn't the only one rooting for Liz and Beth to pick him. Even Jackie DiVita gets her vocal moment to show that she is not just the lesbian lover who is a great dancer, but also a stellar actress and singer.
But Jackie Burns as Elizabeth the protagonist, takes the 11 o'clock number "Always Starting Over" and finally unleashes a voice so powerful that it has previously overwhelmed the sound balance. She stands centrestage and belts with the style of a true Broadway diva, the everyday person turned into the quintessential skinny little girl with a big voice. It is breathtaking, heartbreaking and a life lesson.
There is a happy ending, of sorts, tagged on and everyone gets to leave feeling great and maybe, just maybe, more prepared to take a risk and actually interact with other human beings. While the score, by the creators of Next to Normal Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, doesn't register other than as part of the intricate overall design while the show is running, I was startled to find myself humming a phrase that had lodged in my brain. I puzzled over it until a busker saxophonist trumped the fragment with an off-key rendition of "My Favourite Things," a complete earworm from another time. But the effect of If/Then was so strong that I did meet his eyes and nod grudging approval. Who knows? In another timeline . . .
One character, the wise bartender/struggling novelist Cliffton Hall, intones,
Those what ifs. That's a long winding road you'd better not start down. You'll never get back.
If/Then is a long winding road worth setting out upon. You'll get back but you'll wish that the creators and cast were setting off down another one as soon as possible.
If/Then continues until Sun, May 8 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St E. mirvish.com