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REVIEW: If/Then/Anoka: Yes (Lyric Arts)

The cast of Lyric Arts’ production of the musical If/Then. Photo courtesy of Lyric Arts.

Impressive is the word that best describes my experience at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage’s production of the Broadway musical If/Then.  The word describes both the theatre as well as the performance.  Lyric Arts has been around since 1995 and in its current location on Main Street in Anoka since 2001.  Yet, Friday night was the first time I attended one of their performances; my only question now is why I waited so long to cross the river and attend a show there.

The show’s concept is one that can be found in numerous sources, including the movie Sliding Doors.   It’s premise is that we all make decisions in our lives that can shape and affect our entire life’s journey – be it what college to go attend, what job to accept or whom to marry or not marry.  Here, the central character is a woman named Elizabeth (Kate Beahen) who has returned to New York City following a divorce to pursue a career in urban planning. If/Then opened on Broadway in 2014, where it played for about a year before going to touring companies.  Tom Kitt wrote the music and Brian Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics.  In the Lyric Arts production, stage director Elena Giannetti’s and music director Mary Cay Stone craft a delightful and worthy staging of this musical.

The story begins when Elizabeth meets up with an old boyfriend/friend Lucas (Carl Swanson) and new neighbor Kate (Elinor Strandskov) in a park and contemplates her next move.  Lucas suggests she start using her college nickname of Beth, but her new neighbor suggests she use the name Liz.  This is where the story line splits. In one version she takes the name Beth, leaves the park with Lucas, and answers a phone call from her old college mate Stephen (Wade Fields) who offers her a prestigious urban planning position.  In the other version she takes on the name Liz, leaves with her neighbor Kate, fails to answer the call with the job offer and meets her future husband Josh (Austin Lewis).  To help the audience keep the characters separate, Beth wears glasses whereas Liz does not.  Beth finds major job success while Liz takes a teaching job and finds wedded bliss and has children.  Both lives have their plusses and minuses and the divergent lives reach a pivotal point and come together in the end.  In both worlds, Kate marries her girlfriend Ann (Jacleen Olson) and the marriage works out in one version and fails in the other.

Kate Beahen as Liz/Beth. Photo courtesy of Lyric Arts.

Beahen is terrific in the dual role of Beth/Liz.  She is in almost every scene and carries most of the shows musical numbers.  It gets a little confusing at first when she shifts from Beth to Liz and vice-versa, especially mid-song but the visual cues get more pronounced for the audience to follow.  Strandskov is a great theatrical treat as Kate with her powerful voice belting out tunes and as well as her large personality taking over scenes.  The only drawback is that the script and score do not give her enough scenes.  Swanson, as the steady friend Lucas who has an uncomfortable crush on Beth/Liz, does well in the supportive friend role whose happiness fares better in Beth’s life than it does in Liz’s life.  For the other male roles, the actors unfortunately are not given that much material to provide more fully rounded characters.

Choreographer Mathias Anderson’s work is at its best when the performers are engaging in different, real-life actions on stage.  However, in some of the numbers the choreography too often falls back on line dancing for the musical numbers.  Scenic designer Brian Proball provides a great layered stage with a roof/bridge on the top level and a lower level that serves as a park, an apartment, subway, etc.

Beth (Kate Beahen) and Stephen (Wade Fields) plan the redevelopment of the city. Photo courtesy of Lyric Arts.

Lyric Arts’ theatre itself is one of the best examples I have seen of a movie theatre converted to a live performance space.  A great stadium theatre experience is available, with the stage set at the bottom of the theatre.  The playing area itself could be a bit larger, especially for the dance numbers, but the director makes good use of the limited space.  Keeping with the movie theme is a prominent marquee sign outside and the availability of pop, popcorn, and candy at the concession stand.

The musical, itself, suffers some shortcomings.  Many of the songs go on too long and after awhile lose their distinctiveness.  The running time with intermission is over two hours and 30 minutes; shorter musical numbers might have improved the show’s pacing and not worn out some gimmicks’ welcome.  But even with these drawbacks, Lyric Arts provides an entertaining production with exceptional performers.

If/Then plays at Lyric Arts’ Main Street Stage in Anoka, MN through September 23, 2018.

Bev Wolfe