Dallas — Think back to a pivotal decision in your life—a divorce, a job offer, a proposal, a move. What life would you be living today if you had made a different choice? What if…?
That’s the question that opens up If/Then, the 2014 musical by the Pulitzer Prize-winning duo of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, directed by Michael Greif. It tells the story of Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), a woman knocking on the door of 40 who escapes a dull marriage in Arizona and returns to New York only to be presented with two divergent pathways. Though door number one, she gets her dream job as a city planner with an old friend from her graduate school days. Through door number two, she finds unexpected love by chance—or is it meant to be?
It’s not as cliché as it might seem at face value. Elizabeth’s dual lives manage to feel real and emotional while still exploring ideas of soulmates and fate that could easily fall into something precious and self-aware. No one is altogether good or righteous, and the only villains in the show are the cruelties we encounter in life and the human nature that controls us all.
In her national tour debut as Elizabeth, It’s easy to see why Burns has been picked to step into the shoes of Idina Menzel first in Wicked, then as Menzel’s standby in the Broadway debut of If/Then. The similarities are immediate: the tall, graceful build; the dark hair; the expressive face.
But Burns neatly sidesteps comparisons and makes the role her own through a well-developed sense of comedy and a powerful, bell-clear voice that might even transcend Menzel’s golden pipes. Burns’ technique feels nothing less than effortless through every high-belt number in the show (and there are a lot of them). Her standout moment comes in the penultimate number, “Always Starting Over,” where the stage is completely bare but for Burns and a starry sky—she just owns it.
Anthony Rapp’s turn as Elizabeth’s best friend Lucas feels in many ways like Mark Cohen 2.0, calling back to his iconic role in the original cast of Rent. Maybe it’s a little typecast, but Rapp feels just right in the part. His voice still sounds as good as it did 20 years ago, especially when singing with Burns. The blend of their voices is tight and strong, and they play well off one another.
Tamyra Gray steals more than one scene with her exuberance and showy voice as Elizabeth’s spirited neighbor Kate. She is a clear audience favorite and generates a lot of laughs. Her voice has gained maturity and depth over the years, and she has proven to be quite the capable actress as well. Not winning American Idol may have been the best thing that ever happened to her.
Mark Wendland’s set is smart and spartan, using a revolving stage, modular walkway, and easily movable set pieces to sketch the approximation of Elizabeth’s apartment, a subway car, a park. A large projection screen serves as a clever backdrop throughout the show, taking the audience from place to place on a moving map of New York City. It allows the show to change scene without needing more than the sparse set, with particularly creative use of animation in settings like the subway.
A few missteps mar an otherwise enjoyable show. It is hard to tell if Brian Ronan’s sound design simply doesn’t take full advantage of the stellar acoustics in the Winspear Opera House or if there were technical difficulties with the stage and actor microphones at the opening night performance that threw off the balance. Actors without big voices find their sound swallowed, and the layered harmonies are muddy when more than two people are singing at a time.
Much of Larry Keigwin’s choreography feels gratuitous and out of place. Partnered lifts and random contemporary beats break the flow of scenes and draw attention, confusing the staging and sometimes the audience. Some shows just don’t need much movement, and this is one of them.
But despite any technical matters that may drag the tour down, the musical is surprisingly fresh in both book and music, and the talent—especially Burns, in what may be her first big star turn as a performer—truly makes the production something to enjoy. When we always seem to be starting over with the same tired remakes and revivals (no offense, Bette), it’s nice to see new stories being told.
» Read our interview with Jackie Burns here