It’s entirely possible that you’ll leave If/Then (now playing at the Orpheum Theatre) without any certainty about what actually went on onstage. The basic schtick of this show is to play out the “what ifs” at different decision points, but it’s not always clear where one version of events begins and ends. This has the unfortunate effect of making it often clear just what (and who) the cast are singing about, but certainly makes for some interesting conversation afterwards as you try and figure out with your friends just what it is that you saw. Or, to quote a song title, ask “What the @#$%?”
If/Then was written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, the same team that produced the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Next to Normal. That show famously has a major perception shift halfway through Act I, after which everything to that point is seen in a new light. In the If/Then production currently on tour, the viewer is generally left to guess when the perspective has shifted – something that appears to have been deliberately obscured in the sound and lighting design, creating unnecessary confusion. The show is pretty to look at, but this lack of appropriate cues creates entirely unnecessary confusion.
The score is pleasant to listen to, although without quite the finely tuned balance of Next to Normal. Yorkey’s lyrics often veer towards longer lines; several of the songs get mired in stream of consciousness lines of lyrics (this is also a trait of many characters’ dialogue, which gets a little old). Where things really shine are in a collection of standout hits: the duet “Some Other Me” (exquisitely rendered by Jackie Burns and Matthew Hydzik), Anthony Rapp’s soul strings-strumming performance of “You Don’t Need to Love Me,” and the ensemble piece “This Day/Walking by a Wedding.” (Laughter-wise, Burns’ finely-tuned delivery of “What the @#$%?” had people chuckling throughout.) The choreography by Larry Keigwin is visually reminiscent of Kinky Boots, but more background and less foreground than featured.
If you’re not bothered by the mashed-together alternate storylines, there’s a lot of interesting exposition about relationships and what you give up to be with someone – the repercussions of seemingly small life decisions years down the line. As the lead protagonist, Liz/Beth (Jackie Burns) is compelling to watch; her performance makes one wish for some small tweaks to the presentation to clarify which set of life events she’s responding to. Her voice is syrupy smooth but powerful, and as an actress she’s a fitting replacement for Idina Menzel, who originated the role on Broadway and on tour. Casting her was not a “Best Worst Mistake” – it’s unambiguously good. Anthony Rapp of Rent and other fame is also one of the show’s standout strengths. Now, as to deliberately deciding to make it harder to tell when the narrative had switched between alternate storylines…