If/Then at Lyric Arts

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Lyric Arts is a theatre to watch. They continuously push the boundaries each season with innovatively critical work. This season they have some phenomenal shows lined up, including A Raisin in the Sun and Evita which is my favorite musical and earned a spot on my list of top 10 shows to see for the 2018-2019 season. Lyric Arts opened their 23rd season last weekend with a regional premiere of the 2014 musical, If/Then. The production starred Tony-Award winner, Idina Menzel and was nominated for two Tony’s including Best Original Score and Best Lead Actress in a Musical.

If/Then is about 38-year-old Elizabeth, who has just moved to New York after a recent divorce. While attempting to restart her life in the city of infinite possibilities, she is made with a choice immediately in the beginning of the show as she meets two friends in the park. If she goes one way, her life will be Beth and she will go on to become the city’s deputy urban planner. If she goes the other way, her life will be Liz and she will go on to meet Josh who is a military doctor. The audience slowly see her life split into two parallel paths. The show follows both lives’ simultaneously, as the modern woman face the intersection of choices, chance and eventually fate.

Being a theatre fan for as long as I’ve been, it’s not often I go into seeing a musical blind. I knew the base line of the plot and that Menzel starred in it, but other than that it was new to me. The plot can be a bit tricky at times  which is a bit disappointing as it’s by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-Award winning creators that brought us the musical Next to Normal. This has to do more with the writing than anything else. The details that help differentiate the lives are small and almost hardly even noticeable sometimes. This makes it difficult to see which life we are seeing play out in front of us. The production does its best to separate the two lives by having Elizabeth wear glasses for one character and taking them off for the other. The lights also helps depict which life the audience is seeing.

What I do enjoy about its plot is that it is unique and thought provoking. The idea of chance and almost separate realities is a concept that can be done in so many ways and If/Then makes it interesting to watch. I also want to call out the themes of same-sex couple and bisexual representation that it has. These themes often can be done so wrong but If/Then and Lyric Arts bring them forward beautifully without making the entire show about it. They feel natural and normal which is exactly how these lives should be depicted. Artistic and Executive Director Laura Tahja Johnson also comments in the program that the season is  full of female playwrights, directors, characters and more. It could be said that it is the unofficial theme of their 2018-2019 season. Lyric Arts is bringing representation to the forefront of its season and that is truly something to talk about.

“This season is filled with strong women — including multi-faceted female protagonists, works by female playwrights, adaptations of books by female authors, and productions with artistic staffs predominately led by female directors, music directors and choreographers.”

- Laura Tahja Johnson

The music is good and can be catchy at times. It feels very modern which is a nice change of pace from the recent musicals I’ve seen which include SpongeBob SquarePants and Hello, Dolly! Music Director, Mary Cay Stone leads an off-stage orchestra of six people and they sound wonderful. Whether they are a lead singer or an ensemble member with a solo, they sound spectacular however as a whole ensemble it was pitchy at times and not the strongest ensemble I’ve seen at Lyric Arts before.

Lyric Arts by many reviewers is known for utilizing their small intimate spaces in creative and unique ways. This production is no exception with scenic designer, Brian Proball. The last time I saw a set this large on that stage was a few years ago when they produced Young Frankenstein. It’s a beast of a set with the Brooklyn Bridge looming over the rest of the set and actors. The bridge helps give multiple levels for the small space and honestly makes it look larger. At first, I thought it was going to be too much, but director Elena Giannetti brilliantly has the cast in every nook and cranny to ensure the set and cast never look too crowded. The rest of the set includes doors leading to various offices and apartments along with rolling on set pieces for quickly maneuvered scene changes. Another highlight about this set was on both sides of the proscenium were cut out skyscrapers that were almost as high as the stage. The buildings had various photos projected on them to help depict various scene changes as well. It perfectly captures the feel of New York City without being too crowded or cliché.

Alright let’s talk about Elizabeth who is played by the ever so fabulous Kate Beahen. Could I possibly gush about her more? How can you not when she is one of the most talented actresses in the Twin Cities and is a powerhouse on any stage. Beahen goes to extraordinarily new heights with this role as she essentially plays two different characters. Beahen’s performance is rooted in realism and feels effortless as you watch her transition from role to role. What I especially love about this performance from her is how natural it feels. She isn’t trying too hard but still manages to capture audience’s attention from the moment she steps on stage. Her range is incredible from acting emotionally stressful scenes to singing incredibly powerful ballads. Her voice is incredible from soft and fragile to passionate and fiery songs like “I Hate You” and the more hilariously edge song “What the F*ck.”

 
 

Many of the other leads and supporting roles give memorable and noteworthy performance. Elinor Strandskov is a new performer for me and quickly became one to watch with her riveting performance as Elizabeth’s friend, Kate. Strandskov has incredibly impressive vocals with the soulful song “It’s a Sign.” Austin Lewis, who plays Liz’s love interest, is a dream boat with a beautifully high tenor voice. James Ehlenz plays David and Carl Swanson plays Lucas, Beth’s bisexual best friend. These two show us a truly touching and beautiful same-sex couple who’s love and relationship flourishes through the show.

If/Then is a show that just recently came to light within the last few years. Even if my review didn’t sway your opinion, it’s enough to see the show because who knows when someone will see it again. It’s a bit of a risk doing it but it paid off for Lyric Arts to produce this regional premiere. While the actual writing can be convoluted at times, it deals with issues that are real, modern and relatable. Also, the writing has absolutely nothing to do with the producing that Lyric Arts has done.

If/Then plays at Lyric Arts now through September 27th.