It's not often you can see what appears to be a college sophomore's almost-charming attempt at a short story turned into a Broadway musical. But that time has arrived with If/Then, now at Playhouse Square.
Of course, calling this musical extravaganza "sophomoric" may do a disservice to many second-year scholars at our colleges and universities. No doubt some of them could have written a more engaging show than Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) have produced. The music is almost uniformly repetitive and dull, and the storyline manages to bury a familiar and yet mildly interesting concept under a heaving mound of cliches and self-satisfying bromides.
Before we proceed with the dissection, let's be clear: Jackie Burns who plays the central role of Elizabeth (the Idina Menzel role on Broadway) sings wonderfully, with power and nuance. While she may not be solely worth the price of admission, she's got about 90% of it covered. And the set design by Mark Wendland is a glorious, ever-changing galaxy of pivoting room units, airborne walkways and colorful projections often drenched in New York City iconography consisting of landmark structures, subway stuff, and street maps.
On the other hand, there's the kluge of a script that takes a slender existential realization and turns it into pablum. At some point in our early adulthood, we come to understand that our lives are governed by fate and the decisions we make, and that it is often difficult to separate which is which. Did I slip on that patch of ice because I chose to leave the house at that exact time, or was I fated to place my foot on exactly the wrong place on that snowy sidewalk? Who knows?
Well, Kitt and Yorkey do. They have Elizabeth, a professor of urban planning, return to NYC after her divorce. Where do you want to see her go from there: search for romance or buckle down to her career? Hey, why make a choice when you can observe both. So we watch Elizabeth split: As the aggressive careerist "Beth," she gains fame and recognition and sleeps with her boss; as the family gal "Liz," she meets a cute Army doc named Josh and starts a family. There are ups and downs in both of her lives, but these events never register powerfully because, look out, here comes her other life around the bend.
We are called upon to keep these stories straight, along with the friends who also have separate life paths, because Elizabeth's full name is subdivided and then apportioned in the stories: Beth in one life and Liz in the other. (Good thing her full name wasn't Ethel.) In any case, neither of the stories is particularly compelling. This is strange because Kitt and Yorkey also wrote Next to Normal, a remarkably sensitive and insightful musical about a complex and difficult subject, bipolar disorder.
In this show, the two talented creators seem to have left their brains at the door. The show is made up of songs that share the same ambling melodic structure and lyrics and seem intended to numb your cerebral cortex. To wit: "Our love belongs to everyone who loves us/ So it's not just you and me/ And we both know love doesn't make us perfect/ It just makes us want to be."
Occasionally a song or two struggles out of the miasma of sameness and strikes a slightly more distinctive chord, such as "Hey Kid," a tender tune sung by Josh to their about-to-be born child. And "What the Fuck?" sung by Liz and Beth has a no-nonsense attitude, even if it remains as contextually oblique as many of the other musical meanderings.
The supporting cast does what it can with this material, but they're basically just meat props for Liz and Beth to reference as the next bland song appears. Even the inclusion of one gay male couple and one lesbian couple feels a bit too pat — what, no bisexual couple? Even so, Tamyra Gray stands out as Elizabeth's gal pal Kate, and the love of Anne (Janine DiVita) until their breakup. Anthony Rapp as Lucas is more interesting as the partner of David (Marc DelaCruz) in the Beth story than he is as the lame pseudo-suitor of Liz in the other. Or is it the other way around?
Ultimately, what is so curious about this play is the lack of genuine wit. People who live in New York City have a lot to deal with: Even going to the grocery store is a challenge. So they develop a strong hide and often a sly and self-deprecating sense of humor. In If/Then, the scenery is pure New York, but the clueless, remarkably boring people seem like they were flown in from Iowa.If/Then
Through Feb. 21 at Connor Palace 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org