In her belated return to Broadway after “Wicked,” powerhouse belter Idina Menzel is sorely misused in “If/Then.” “Next to Normal” writing team Brian Yorkey (who bears responsibility for the pretentious book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (who composed the flaccid music) designed this concept musical as the existential dilemma of a woman weighing her choices between living two equally boring lives. This smaller-than-life show can’t extinguish Menzel’s larger-than-life persona, but it certainly diminishes her Amazonian strengths as a performer.
Like the bi-polar heroine of “Next to Normal,” 38-year-old Elizabeth (Menzel) is a woman at war with herself. Back in Manhattan after an unhappy divorce, she contemplates the new life — and possibly new love — she hopes to have in the city. But which one will it be? The easygoing life of “Liz,” who allows herself to be guided by chance and fate and emotion? Or the self-directed life of “Beth,” a careerist who uses her head and plans her moves with cautious calculation?
As the title song at the top of the show makes clear, whichever life choice Elizabeth makes — as Beth, the high-powered city planner, or as Liz, the devoted wife, mother, and teacher — she’ll probably always wonder “What if …..” she took that other path. As she puts it to herself in one navel-gazing lyric: “Will I ever just learn how to live / And not wonder What if?”
But before she can tackle that philosophical conundrum, there are a lot of decisions to make — the first of which is what to wear. Shall it be the black suit or the grey suit? Or maybe the black skirt with the grey jacket? Or the black pants with the white blouse? From the visual signals supplied by costumer Emily Rebholz, it’s obvious that whichever life she chooses, it’s going to be drearily monotonous. And while Kenneth Posner has color-coded her options in shades of blue and pink, the show’s true color is grey.
Mark Wendland’s striking set opens with its own visual prologue — a lush green park setting, complete with pretty cafe tables and umbrellas, where both of Elizabeth’s prospective life stories, as Liz and as Beth, begin. From that bucolic scene, the set expands to provide a metal framework of multi-tiered playing spaces that, together with the turntable stage and mirrored overhang, might have been better utilized to distinguish between the parallel plots.
But helmer Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) clearly had his hands full trying to imprint some distinguishing marks on Elizabeth’s generically stereotyped friends. And he gets absolutely no help in that department from the robotic movements supplied by choreographer Larry Keigwin.
LaChanze (a Tony winner for “The Color Purple”) is much too imposing a presence for Kate, Liz’s saucy lesbian best friend and a kindergarten teacher. Jenn Colella, on the other hand, has no presence at all as Kate’s girlfriend. Anthony Rapp (“Rent”) has his own cross to bear (and drops it) as another walking-talking cliche, Lucas, the social activist who is Beth’s best gay friend. (In one scenario, he becomes a friend with benefits who woos Beth with “You Don’t Have to Love Me,” one of the least romantic love songs in Broadway musical history.) For sheer symmetry, Lucas’s boyfriend David (Jason Tam) has no more presence than Kate’s girlfriend.
James Snyder (“Cry-Baby”) has a rather better time of it as sweet and loving Josh, the Army doctor who becomes easygoing Liz’s husband in Life Story #1 — or possibly Life Story #2. For his good behavior, the likable thesp gets to sing “Hey, Kid,” a song to his newborn son that’s genuinely moving — maybe because it’s an honest expression of a feeling being felt in the moment, rather than an intellectual meditation on some feeling that might be felt at some future date.
With her tear-the-house-down voice and commanding personality, Menzel has no trouble putting over her big power ballads. She absolutely soars in “Always Starting Over,” the eleven o’clock number that closes this long show. But she’s pressed to sing about existential matters in talky songs that are more analytical than emotional. And in “What the Fuck,” she’s put in the humiliating position of proving what a down-to-earth gal she is by using profanity to express her deep thoughts.
And here comes the spoiler for anyone wondering which life Elizabeth chooses to live: did you really think it would be the feminist career woman who betrays her husband, has an abortion, and climbs to the top of her profession? If you do, then I have this bridge to Brooklyn you might want to buy.