NEW YORK — The new “If/Then” is sleeker, smarter and runs far more efficiently than last year’s ungainlier model, the one that had its test-drive in Washington last fall. Its heart is bigger now, too, a design modification that assures a more exhilarating ride.
But it’s also true that the “If/Then” that celebrated its official Broadway opening Sunday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre had a number of flaws to address, and not all of them were eradicated in the months that this vehicle, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal” team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, was in the shop. The biggest issue was and is the show’s narrative device, telling the story of a woman whose life goes in two directions, one focused on family, the other on career. It remains something of a conundrum, for the conceit comes across, even now, less as a scintillating invention than as an encumbrance.
Having seen the musical in a more embryonic shape at the National Theatre in late November, I can assure you that Kitt and Yorkey, working with director Michael Greif, have only improved the piece for Broadway. They’ve removed a couple of ineffective songs, shifted numbers around and made somewhat clearer the two courses for the midlife adventures of Elizabeth Vaughan, a lovelorn city planner played with comedic gusto by that dishy songbird with the 1,000-megahertz chirp, Idina Menzel.
The other actors inhabiting the two threads of the musical — chiefly, Anthony Rapp, LaChanze and James Snyder — are bona fide power sources in their own right who, by force of personality, give the schematic characters of “If/Then” some heft. In other good news, Larry Keigwin’s choreography, wispily detached from the proceedings in the Washington version, is stronger now. And the show clocks in at two hours and 35 minutes — 15 fewer squirm-inducing minutes than for the D.C. incarnation.
The bottom line: “If/Then” is an enjoyable, beautifully sung, at times deeply touching experience, built on a structure that never completely works.
There are major consolations, though, in this piece, a departure for Broadway these days in that it’s a musical that isn’t based on and named after a famous movie. A second exposure to the score adds to one’s appreciation of Kitt and Yorkey’s abilities to invest modern social issues with melodic urgency. As in their Tony-winning score for “Next to Normal,” a show about the havoc mental illness wreaks on one stressed-out suburban family, this musical’s best songs bring you to tears or breathlessness: “You Don’t Need to Love Me,” a number for Rapp’s Lucas, about a gay man who will settle for less than perfect bliss; “Some Other Me,” a duet for Rapp and Menzel, concerning the myriad roads not taken; and “You Learn to Live Without,” Menzel’s poignant Act 2 solo in which her character begins to grasp — in both her fates — that you make some choices, and life makes others for you.
We’re conscious at the outset of “If/Then” — in an opening number whose lyrics have been entirely rewritten — that we’re bound for a lesson in the butterfly effect, the sense that major shifts in fortune can result from what seem to be the most insignificant of actions. Thirty-nine-year-old Elizabeth, newly arrived back in Manhattan after nearly a dozen years (and a failed marriage) in Phoenix, shows up in Madison Square Park to meet an old friend, Rapp’s Lucas, and a new friend, LaChanze’s Kate. Each beseeches Elizabeth to accompany them to a different event, and in making the impossible choice — going to both — her story splits in two, one leading principally to love (and Snyder’s Josh), the other to a big-time job for the city’s planning department.
She becomes, alternately, Beth the city planner and Liz the wary girlfriend (later wife) of surgeon Josh. It’s a little easier now to follow each of the intertwining stories — partly because Liz wears glasses and Beth doesn’t — but still, there’s a lack of satisfying payoff in the gimmick.
“Here’s how it starts and here’s how it ends,” a character sings in the closing number, a reprise of the first song. And that’s just it. In the seeming circularity of “If/Then,” there still lacks a powerful sense of how far Beth or Liz has come.
Although my daughter and I followed the twin plots more easily this time, I’m not sure the nuances were all getting through. Asked at intermission if they were aware that only Liz wore the glasses, for instance, an engaging couple from Rochester seated next to us shook their heads “no” in unison.
Wisely, Kitt and Yorkey have cut a confusing first-act song for LaChanze, “The Story of Jane.” And by pushing to the end of Act 2 the onboard-the-aircraft song, “The Moment Explodes,” they have made clearer a reconciliation between Beth and Lucas. (The song, while robustly dramatic, still feels as if it lands in another musical.)
Jason Tam and Jenn Colella, as Lucas’s and Kate’s lovers, respectively, add to the show’s buoyant energy. Mark Wendland’s cityscape set, Kenneth Posner’s Pantone color-spectrum lighting and Emily Rebholz’s costumes remain pleasingly urbane elements, too. All of the fine contributions allow you to cheer “If/Then” on, even if you are compelled to repeat to yourself, “Okay . . . that’s Liz . . . glasses.”
music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets, Mark Wendland; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Kenneth Posner; choreography, Larry Keigwin; sound, Brian Ronan; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; music director, Carmel Dean. With Jerry Dixon and Tamika Lawrence. About 2 hours 35 minutes. At Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., New York. www.ticketmaster.com.