Sometimes the most compelling thing about a performance is the connection the performers build with the audience. On Friday night, this is exactly what happened at the end of Actors’ Theatre’s fine production (and Michigan premiere) of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s mediocre “If/Then,” the 2015 musical remembered largely as a vehicle for “Wicked” and “Frozen” star Idina Menzel about a newly divorced 30-something urban planner who returns to New York City to start again only to question and double back on all the possible directions she might turn in terms of love and/or career.
The music and lyrics are repetitive, though performed beautifully by this cast, and the bifurcated plot is somewhat difficult to follow. However, after curtain call, the house lights came up, and the cast changed the lyrics and sang to one special audience member brought onstage on her 70th birthday her very own version of “What If?” They reflected back the major choices of her life, and even those of us who’d never seen her before were moved — as she was — to tears.
This experience, no doubt, is what Actors Theatre is about — taking risks to generously bring theater that pushes boundaries to grateful audiences for whom it is deeply meaningful.
This particular musical is made of a very middle-class midlife crisis very much born of the 21st Century. New York City is meant to be a character, but it’s devoid of any grit — though the main character Elizabeth, called Beth in one plot line and Liz in the other (in the dual identity vein of the 1998 film “Sliding Doors”), is wonderfully flawed, quirky, likable, and has a mouth like a truck driver. She and her friends — a gay and a lesbian couple, plus her flirty boss, predominately — endure infidelity, deployment, death, birth, marriage, and divorce. It may be difficult to know which of the dual identities is playing out at any given moment, but the whole thing is shot through with realness, and the theme is clear.
Actors Theatre’s production is largely successful because Jolene Frankey directs a talented cast who delivers strong performances all the way around. Molly Jones is a wonderful Elizabeth and has a tremendous voice that utterly fills the space with both sound and emotion, particularly in “Always Starting Over.” And yet she doesn’t carry the show alone. Jess Luiz is a soulful, confident Kate, Patrick Finn is a charming, warm Josh, and the other 11 cast members pull their weight as well, and clearly delineate scene shifts with Frankey’s fine blocking and choreography amid Christian Poquette’s understated set.
The 10-piece orchestra, visible upstage, is directed by Scott Patrick Bell and unfailingly terrific throughout the two and a half hour show.
The many moving parts of this production are solidly executed; its problems lie in the material. And yet Actors’ Theatre still manages to create an enjoyable and worthwhile experience — even moving the audience to tears once not confined by the script and lyrics.