By Daniel Skora
It was Yogi Berra, full-time catcher for the New York Yankees and part-time dugout philosopher who once said “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”. (Yogi, you may recall, was also the guy who, when asked how many slices he wanted his pizza cut into, replied “You’d better cut it into four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six”.)
Yogi himself would probably have been very surprised that his words about the fork in the road would ring true for Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), the subject of the musical “If/Then”, currently appearing at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre. At the time we meet her in the show, Elizabeth is having her own fork-in-the-road moment. An urban planner who has spent the last dozen years in Phoenix in a now defunct marriage, Elizabeth is newly relocated to New York City. A chance meeting in the park with two former friends reunites her with Kate (Tamyra Gray), now a kindergarten teacher, and Lucas (Anthony Rapp) a community organizer. Each friend represents a differing career path with differing lifestyles, and in this unique theatrical presentation of parallel universes, Elizabeth is going to have the opportunity of experiencing both.
Through Kate and her girlfriend Anne (Janine DiVita) Elizabeth, now called Liz, meets Josh (Matthew Hydzik), an Army doctor between tours of duty. After several run-ins, Liz begins having an affair with him. She also gets in contact with an old friend Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), a deputy city planner who recommends her for a professorship.
Meanwhile, the other Elizabeth, now known as Beth, is moving along the path that’s represented by Lucas. Beth also reunites with Stephen, but in this second scenario takes Stephen’s job as a deputy city planner when he gets promoted. Beth becomes a high-powered business woman. She gets pregnant by Lucas, but does not tell him and gets an abortion. “If/Then” weaves each of Elizabeth’s divergent stories into an intricate brocade: Beth’s excursion through the halls of big ideas and big responsibilities sharing the limelight with Liz’s more commonplace husband/children/job orientation.
As either Liz or Beth, Elizabeth is purely reactionary to everything that goes on around her. Her life and the songs that accompany it are a continuous roller coaster ride of ups and downs. She is never able to come to the conclusion that life is an engagement with one’s self, and only after developing character and moral fiber is a person able to handle those “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. New York is a kind of Nirvana for the characters that people the show: a place for professional success, coffee and bike rides in the park, and a happiness which is determined by the quality of one’s personal relationships.
If the premise for an Elizabeth/Liz/Beth saga sounds like it may be a bit confusing (book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt), trying to keep track of everything that’s going on while watching the show is even more so. Scene changes happen rapidly and there is little indication from one to the next that Liz has changed into Beth or vice versa.
The best part of “If/Then” are the vocals by Burns. Though the score itself contains no song strong enough to make it outside the context of the musical itself, Burns’ voice in the mostly power ballads rises to amazing crescendos.
“If/Then” experienced a mixed bag of reactions on opening night. Yes, it got a standing ovation. But in over a score of years attending Fisher Theatre productions, I have yet to see a show that did not get either a full or partial standing ovation. Perhaps a better indicator of a show’s merits happens at intermission. That’s when members of the audience who didn’t like the first act of the show and don’t expect it to get any better in the second surreptitiously grab their coats and head for the exits. There were more than several who did just that on “If/Then’s” opening night.
The show, unlike most, however, provides a totally unscientific and quite unintentional way of predicting whether this is a musical you’re going to enjoy. Within its twenty songs is one with a title and a refrain the likes of which is not usually found in a Broadway score. The title and its reoccurring lyric are “What the Fuck”, and that alone should be enough to tell you whether this is a show that you’d like to see.
“If/Then” runs through April 10th. Tickets are available at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1.800.982.2787, online at www.BroadwayinDetroit.com or www.ticketmaster.com and at the Fisher Theatre box office. The Fisher Theatre is located in the Fisher Building at 3011 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.