By Barry Reszel
If/Then, is an underappreciated, exciting, modern masterpiece with the folksy tenderness of Once, a touch of Brigadoon‘s mysticism, the tender realness of Next to Normal and a brilliant songbook all its own.
This lovely spin on a look into a successful New York woman’s choices is underappreciated because the show is largely unknown. If/Then got hosed at the 2014 Tony’s, earning but two nominations and no awards. However, the show did cash in at the Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards, including taking the awards for Favorite New Musical and Favorite Lead Actress in a Musical (Idina Menzel). But no one should let awards alone guide their ticket buying decisions. Ten years earlier, Wicked won but two Tony’s—one for Best Costume Design and one for Best Actress in a Musical (the same person nominated a decade later for If/Then). Who wants to see that show?
The current staging of If/Then by one of Chicagoland’s gutsiest storefront companies, Brown Paper Box, brings out the very best of one person living two distinctly different lives simultaneously, based on differing decisions made one fateful day. With music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the same duo that penned the score and lyrics for Next to Normal, the If/Then music is fun, modern, soulful and varied. “Here I Go,” “What the Fuck,” “No More Wasted Time,” “Hey Kid” and “You Learn to Live Without” is one person’s list of favorites. Every patron can compile his or her own.
While the explained premise might seem a bit hard to follow, rest assured it’s not. But it often helps to know the plotline before going into a show, so see details on the concurrent life stories of Liz and Beth, along with a history of the production here.
All said, If/Then is hugely reliant on the singer/actor chosen to play Elizabeth. Menzel belted her socks off on Broadway, and delightful Broadway star Jackie Burns took a turn in the national tour that came through Chicago four years ago. In the leading role here, Amanda Giles is every bit Menzel’s/Burns’ equal. Coming off a star performance in PRIDE’s A Man of No Importance, Giles honest depth and fabulous opera-trained vocals make her the perfect casting call by Director Elyse Dolan.
Liz/Beth’s key love interest, Josh, is portrayed with warm sincerity by Michael Peters, who’s version of “Hey Kid” is heartwarming. And as best friend Lucas, friendly Parker Guidry overflows with humor and kindness. David (Michael Idalski), Steven (Matthew Fayfer), Elena (Jennifer Ledesma), Kate (Bridget Adams-King) and Ann (Alanna Chavez) round out the cast of characters in Liz/Beth’s lives while singing the heck out of the Kit/Yorkey songbook. Sets, costumers and choreography are adequate, meaning they add what’s necessary without being distractions or highlights.
That’s more than enough for a company, one of this reviewer’s favorites, that always seems to pluck an über-talent from the Chicagoland musical theatre scene, give her the spotlight in a magnificent show that never got its due or is largely forgotten, and deliver to its audiences a fabulous evening or afternoon of professional entertainment for a mere pittance compared to other ticket prices.
Brown Paper Box Co. presents “If/Then” through Feburary 16 in Studio Three at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.