Ever buy an appliance with so many working parts that you feel the need to read the owner’s manual again and again? A first sitting through “If/Then,” the charming and ungainly new musical trying out for Broadway at the National Theatre, engenders a sensation like that: It’s a shiny new thing you’re eager to play with, but it doesn’t prove to be entirely user-friendly.
The brainchild of composer Tom Kitt and book and lyric writer Brian Yorkey of “Next to Normal” fame, “If/Then” boasts a number of appealing features, including an earthy star with heavenly pipes, Idina Menzel. A smooth story, though, is not one of them. In point of fact, the exposition-saturated “If/Then” is two related tales involving the same set of characters that wrap around each other like the strands of a double helix. To help keep the stories straight, the creative team, led by “Rent” and “Next to Normal” director Michael Greif, employs a less-than-sufficient color-coded scene system: red background lighting for one tale, blue for the other and, if I am not mistaken — and Lord knows, I might be — purple for instances in which the narrative applies to both.
The color code reflects both the admirable ambition and the sizable kinks yet to be worked out in the $10 million musical, a restless fable of modern midlife crisis that portrays our complicated world as, well, complicated. Its themes range over questions of fortune and self-determination, personal growth and the need to adapt, the wonderful fabric of urban life, marriage gay and straight, love of New York City, fidelity, friendship, death and . . . let’s see . . . did I mention the ineffable whims of chance?
“There’s a moment when everything changes,” Menzel’s Elizabeth sings in the opening number, set amid the botanicals in New York’s Madison Square Park and danced by the ensemble to Larry Keigwin’s consistently pedestrian choreography. It’s the first of many attractive Kitt-Yorkey melodies, the very best of which, “You Don’t Need to Love Me,” is a ballad sung to heartbreaking effect by Anthony Rapp as a gay man whose destiny is entwined with Elizabeth’s. He and the irresistible LaChanze, playing Elizabeth’s vivacious lesbian neighbor, prove to be invaluable here, funny and authentic as the friends Elizabeth leans on in good times and bad.
They are also the twin portals of happenstance through whom “If/Then” splits in two. And it is the cluttered staging of their initial encounter with Elizabeth, in which she both meets and doesn’t meet the dreamy man of her dreams (a splendid James Snyder) that the show takes some stutter steps. Not only is it difficult to determine at any given moment which of the stories of Elizabeth’s fate we’re in, but “If/Then” also doesn’t make the shifting between the stories much of a joy. Shouldn’t the segues be breezy fun, not a perplexing puzzle?
Another, philosophically larger problem: In presenting us neutrally with two competing paths for Elizabeth, what precisely is at stake here, and what is an audience being asked to hope for? Are we merely sitting in a laboratory, peering into a pair of petri dishes? And finally: Something has to register more deeply, and distinctly, in each of Menzel’s portraits of Elizabeth for us to appreciate how emotional lives change when circumstances do. Even if the point is that no path seriously alters the nature of who each of us is, we need to see how the specific motions Kitt and Yorkey put Elizabeth through affect her.
The involved plot mechanics of “If/Then,” which had its world premiere Sunday night, are activated in the park, as Elizabeth, an urban planner in her late 30s, returns to New York City after a dozen years and a failed marriage in Phoenix. The premise is quintessential rom-com, and Menzel — ravishing even in white tops and skinny jeans — is an effective comic heroine: Her line readings are naturally funny, especially when the humor is salty and the character is speaking off the cuff.
Why exactly her trajectory divides is one of those take-it-on-faith conceits — the way you just have to accept the story of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” as it spins out in reverse. The division occurs around issues of chance and choice: in the “blue” story, Menzel’s Beth follows the advice of Rapp’s Lucas, a community organizer, and attends a protest against a big waterfront-redevelopment plan. In the “red” story, her Liz agrees instead to go with LaChanze’s Kate to hear music at a coffeehouse. This leads in the blue story to her securing a job as a city planner — and missing a second crucial encounter in the park with Snyder’s Josh. In the red story, she misses a phone call for the city planning job, but gets stuck in the same subway car as Josh, laying the groundwork for romance.
You still with me? Please keep up! What happens to both Liz and Beth is of course illustrative of a real and lively concern, much in conversation in a post-feminist world, having to do with the pivotal question of balancing work and family, and what happens to one when you focus on the other. As a result, “If/Then” provides any number of incidents that ring true about the aspirational duality in the lives of American women.
Yorkey hews impressively to the logical progression of each of these stories, but they’re laden with detail — part of the reason the musical runs 2 hours and 50 minutes. The writers’ generous impulses toward their characters propel the show into extraneous episodes, too. LaChanze’s teacher Kate, for instance, sings to her kindergarten class an allegorical story about Beth — or is it Liz? — called, of all things, “The Story of Jane.” Oh, no, not a Jane, too! A sequence in which Beth’s boss — Liz’s former mentor — Stephen (Jerry Dixon, in fine voice) is hospitalized, and a mini-drama plays out with his suspicious wife, is one digression too many. The musical also wants to celebrate New York as the epicenter of human possibility.
This takes time.
That is not to say that “If/Then” is itself a chore. It’s a winning blob, and it provides a lot of engaging elements, from Mark Wendland’s becoming minimalist set, with rotating skeletons of city apartments and handsome retractable fire escapes, to Emily Rebholz’s sleek and taste-drenched costumes. The score — a far sunnier composition than the songwriters worked out for their Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about mental illness, “Next to Normal” — gives Tony-winner Menzel the power ballads in which her fans from “Wicked” and “Rent” will exult. The effect of her 11 o’clock number, “Always Starting Over,” may be predictable, but it’s socko nonetheless.
I’m partial, too, to the sentiment of the song Menzel sings halfway through Act 1, in a scene that has Liz sleeping with one man, and Beth another. The number is called “What the F---?” If the musical’s talented crew can tame this life-affirming, promisingly big-hearted and wholly unwieldy beast, then “WTF” will no longer feel as if it’s the evening’s theme song.
Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets, Mark Wendland; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; choreography, Larry Keigwin; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Brian Ronan; music direction, Carmel Dean. With Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence, Joe Cassidy, Miguel Cervantes, Ann Sanders. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Tickets, $53 to $253. Through Dec. 8 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit www.thenationaldc.com or call 800-514-3849.