Monday, April 7, 2014

Broadway Musical Reviews: Idina Menzel in ‘If/Then’; ‘Les Miz’ Returns

Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey; music by Tom Kitt; directed by Michael Greif
Previews began March 5, 2014; opened March 30
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Les Miserables
Music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; adaptation by Trevor Nunn & John Caird; directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Previews began March 1, 2014; opened March 23
Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Menzel in If/Then (photo: Joan Marcus)
I wasn’t a fan of Next to Normal, the bi-polar musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which played with adult themes in a juvenile rock style to the tune of a Pulitzer Prize. The same could be said for their new musical, If/Then, which expends pop/rock energy on a basically gimmicky conceit familiar from the 1998 movie Sliding Doors (itself based on Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 movie Blind Chance).

If/Then proceeds on simultaneous paths for its heroine, Elizabeth—a thirty-something divorcee who returns to New York after living in Phoenix for a dozen years—depending whether or not she answers her cell phone. She’s either Liz, a glasses-wearing city planner who falls in love with Josh, a soldier just returned from Iraq; or Beth, an unemployed activist, sans glasses, who begins seeing her old college boyfriend Lucas. The show toggles back and forth by rote, each section dogged by Kitt and Yorkey’s antiseptic—and interchangeable—tunes.

Between the lackluster songs and superficial exploration of Liz/Beth’s lives, If/Then resembles a show made by committee, with very little human element. Although set in cosmopolitan New York and featuring couples that are straight, gay and lesbian, the musical never feels organic: instead, its sharp edges have been filed down to the point that, aside from gratuitous use of the F-word (a song called “What the Fuck” gets huge laughs), If/Then will pass muster with the unfinicky Wednesday matinee crowd.

Yorkey’s book cutesily shows the differences between Liz and Beth’s differing roads taken by, say, having one attend a Yankee game (with a joke about how good they are) and the other a Mets game (with a joke about how bad they are). To make matters worse, among easy jokes that condescend to Phoenix, the Olive Garden and even Brooklyn, the creators decide that the drama needs tragic undertones, so they throw in an Iraq war casualty and a near plane crash, which give portentous—and pretentious—“weight” to the heroines’ possible paths.

The usually resourceful director Michael Grief comes to grief with unending gimmickry that extends from the thematic concept to the visuals: there are mirrors and doorways (actually door frames) that constantly—and redundantly—underline the sense of looking at life from varied perspectives. At least Greif’s set designer Mark Wendland and lighting designer Kenneth Posner make the staging look snazzy.

An able supporting cast—led by Anthony Rapp (as Lucas) and LaChanze (as lesbian sidekick  Kate)—gives its all, and both Liz and Beth are played with smarts, sass and vulnerability by Frozen’s “Let It Go” girl Idina Menzel, who deserves a better musical than this….or Rent, or even Wicked. Although saddled with mind-numbing songs, Menzel is such a pro she even turns the limp noodle of a showstopper, “Always Starting Over,” into something like an emotional, rousing climax. Menzel gives this fizzle of a show a toughness and honesty it otherwise lacks.

The cast of Les Miserables (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Coming on the heels of the commercially successful movie version, the beloved mega-musical Les Miserables returns to Broadway in a prepackaged roadshow production featuring Matt Kinley’s functional sets (based on author Victor Hugo’s own drawings—originally seen in early editions of his eponymous novel—and used here as evocative backdrops), Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland’s decent costumes and Paule Constable’s dramatically inventive lighting.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell’s solid staging, which gets its audience to its final destination with little fuss, is populated with cast members who do their thing with sometimes inspired proficiency. If Caissie Levy’s Fantine belts out the soaring “I Dreamed a Dream” less memorably than Anne Hathaway did in her Oscar-winning turn, at least Nikki M. James’s spunky Eponine gives a heartrending version of “On My Own,” a song I’ve never warmed up to.

I’ve always found the comic-relief couple Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier problematic, especially in their unnecessary wedding appearance for “Beggars at the Feast”; it’s the end of a long show, so please leave the stage and let’s get to the finale! Here, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle mug even more outrageously than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter did in the movie: the pair’s first number, the hilarious “Master of the House,” scores, but then again it always does.

As the antagonistic leads, Will Swenson (Javert) and Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean) are well-matched. Swenson, who makes a physically and vocally imposing Javert, really nails his big number, “Stars,” after which he’s put through an impressively staged suicide that draws gasps and applause. As Valjean, Karimloo has a large voice that he doesn’t push most of the time, even going subtly soft for an achingly lovely rendition of “Bring Him Home.” His acting is a little on the broad side, but in a show of monumental gestures, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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