Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Idina Menzel outshines flawed musical, “If/Then”

[Woody’s Rating: ★★½☆☆

Idina Menzel (center) and the cast of “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Idina Menzel (center) and the cast of “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

The plots were all too fairy tale-ish.

They didn’t bother me, though — because I ended up adoring Idina Menzel’s green-skinned witchiness in “Wicked,” bisexual verve in stage and movie versions of “Rent” (highlighting a voice as energy-packed as a Red Bull binge), and thawed iciness in the animated Disney film smash, “Frozen.”

Now the 44-year-old’s shining in “If/Then,” a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning musical at the SHN Orpheum in San Francisco that’s a dual-storyline star vehicle tailored for her mezzo-soprano voice.

Her range and resonance are stunning (as in the penultimate tune, “Always Starting Over”).

Indeed, she’s incomparable (except, once in a while, when she mentally yanks me back to the heft of Ethel Merman’s vocal boombox).

But this show’s fairy tale-ish, too.

It revolves around Elizabeth’s life in New York City — uh, lives, since the divorced former prof gets to, along with the audience, experience two possible life paths in her search of satisfying career and romance.

On paper, the touring company of “If/Then” has everything going for it.

Including three talented actors-singers — LaChanze, Anthony Rapp and James Snyder — who’d supported Menzel in the Broadway edition that ran for 401 performances.

And the main creative trio — composer Tom Kitt, lyricist and book writer Brian Yorkey, and director Michael Greif — who’d successfully worked together before, on “Next to Normal.”

Menzel’s pipes may not be the Eighth Wonder of the World but they surely come close.

LaChanza and Anthony Rapp in “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

LaChanza and Anthony Rapp in “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

LaChanze’s vocal chops aren’t far behind.

And Snyder’s rendition of “Hey Kid” is a pleasing catch-all glimpse of fatherhood.

Humor adds more than a modicum of zest, and is especially sparkling in Act One (with Kate, LaChanze’s best-buddy character, delivering the funniest lines).

Exceptional, too, is Mark Wendland’s imaginative set that darts in every direction possible and projects a perpetually changing backdrop of the city (highly effective for a tune titled “A Map of New York”).

And deftly surpassing a sluggish Act One is a dynamic, more poignant second half.

But the show’s spattered with difficulties.

I wonder if Yorkey decided at some point that bustling street scenes in The Big Apple necessitated crowding onstage one of everything — except, perhaps, a puppy.

Thrust in my face were cliché-laden white and black, Latino and Asian, poor and wealthy, educated and not, married and split-up, newly born and dying, straight and gay and lesbian and bi.

Not to mention a comparison of wishful thinking and reality.

Also, innovative certainly isn’t a word I’d apply to either songs or dialogue, and although the basic idea may be unusual, its antecedent clearly lies in a 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow romcom flick, “Sliding Doors,” which I also found less than compelling.

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Chunks of the parallel, occasionally ambiguous personas flash by so choppily, it’s too easy to become confused as to which tale is being depicted (Menzel’s Beth and Liz overlap in two refrains —“You Learn to Live Without” and “What the F***?” — and are differentiated throughout chiefly by the fact that the latter wears dark-rimmed glasses).

In addition, excess time is spent dealing with details of city planning and architecture and political machinations.

And in an awkward attempt to replicate the impulsiveness, madness and vulgarity of Manhattan, lyrics — which have a countrified residue that ill fits the urban landscape — gratuitously embrace swearwords.

Chorus numbers, instead of becoming vehicles for harmonious (or even unison) singing, seem to invite shouting.

And the choreography tends to be disjointed, as if to prove New York’s spirit so fractured, so diversified no two dancers could possibly move in sync.

Flailing’s apparently the rule of thumb.

A train sequence in which a loudspeaker announcement comically can’t be understood unfortunately accentuates a theatrical sound system that makes many lyrics and spoken words undecipherable.

Lastly, the “What if…” theme is repeated again and again: “I get lost in what might be.” “I believe in choices.”

If “If/Then” were less redundant, and strained less to be a groundbreaking something or other, I then might be able to concentrate more happily on the gestalt rather than Menzel’s diaphragm.

“If/Then” runs at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, through Dec. 6. Night performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Tickets: $50 to $212 (subject to change). Information: (888) 746-1799 or www.shnsf.com.

Contact Woody Weingarten at http://vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net

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