Most of us have had the realization that our life paths are often determined by a random collection of rash decisions, dumb luck, smart luck, and pure happenstance. That wouldn't bother us so much if we also didn't have the awareness of our own mortality, which means we don't get eternal do-overs. Our time, and our choices, are limited.
There you have the essential take-away from the musical If-Then, now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Unfortunately, it takes the creators almost three hours to unpack that elementary existential truth, while trotting out so many like-sounding songs that you might think you're living through an ever-repeating cycle of deja vu musical moments.
It's kind of a shame, since Kitt and Yorkey also combined their talents to deliver the amazing Next to Normal, a nuanced and sophisticated musical about bipolar disorder.
The saving graces in this production are that it is directed by Martin Friedman, a man whose plays always pulse with humanity, and that it stars Sandra Emerick, a woman who knows how to act a song while doing full justice to its musicality.
As for the script, it employs parallel yarns about Elizabeth, a recently divorced woman who moves to New York City and can't decide whether she wants to pursue her career or settle down and make a family. Sure, that's a daft choice to begin with, but it gets no smarter as we see her split into two different versions of herself, Beth and Liz. One's a fast-rising gal in city planning who can't find romance and the other is a woman who joins political protests, gets married to a soldier, and then wonders about whether she should have had a career. Different choices, different paths.
Trouble is, we all get the entire idea of the show in the first 20 minutes. And then it's a forced march to the end as we tick a multiplicity of boxes. For Beth: employment success, sleeping with a borderline gay guy friend, getting pregnant, having an abortion, hating being single, almost dying in an airplane accident (no, I'm not kidding), and meeting a soldier named Josh for coffee. For Liz: meeting Josh right away, they date, they marry, they have problems, their friends have problems, more things happen, can I stop now?
It's an exhausting journey. Fortunately, Emerick lends her powerful and evocative voice to the cheese-heavy songs, wringing more emotion out of them than they deserve. This is particularly true with "Always Starting Over" just before the final curtain. She is supported well by Braelin Andrzejewski as her witty pal Kate, Delaney Hagy as Kate's lover Anne, and Michael Knobloch as the blossoming gay man Lucas. Michael Snider also contributes a manly turn as Josh.
Some other voices in the cast don't quite match those performers, but they all pitch in to try and keep Kitt and Yorkey's exercise in obviousness lumbering along.
It is all played on a set designed by Trad A Burns that is simply dazzling at first glance, with white lines on the floor and the sides radiating out towards the audience from a centered NYC skyline (and its reflection) on the backdrop. But since the set remains static throughout, the visual effect soon wears off and it doesn't do much to augment the proceedings, especially in a play where everything is constantly changing.
Friedman has been producing top quality theater for years at this venue on the campus of Lakeland College, utilizing the talents of top designers and fine area actors as well as students. And in this show, most of the production far outpaces the banal material at hand.
Through February 16 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7134.