If/Then Features Powerhouse Performances

There are some shows that launch their performers into stardom. Then, there are shows that are themselves launched into stardom by their performers. If/Then is definitely an example of the latter. It ran on Broadway in 2014, and its primary draw was its star, Idina Menzel. Just coming off of her Frozen fame, it was the perfect time for her triumphant return to Broadway in a role that was tailor-made for her. When I saw the show around the time it opened, I knew it probably wouldn’t last without its star — and sure enough, soon after she announced she was leaving, the show set its closing date after a year-long run.

A community theater production of the show, needless to say, seemed like a bad idea to me. There are aspects of the show that lend itself well to community theater — there is a solid ensemble part, enough opportunity for some basic choreography and the set can be simplified without taking away from the story. The problem is finding the proper leading lady to step into Idina Menzel’s shoes. It is no easy feat to find a voice like that, that night after night can blow the roof off of the venue. Having someone try and fail to reach that level would be painful for everyone involved.

Fortunately, the Academy Players of Rhode Island have Elizabeth Dennis, for whom the impossible task seems almost effortless.

If/Then is essentially two musicals for the price of one. It follows Elizabeth Vaughn, who just left a 12-year marriage, out west for New York City to pursue the life she always wanted. She meets the spirited Kate, a kindergarten teacher who believes in following signs from the universe (Ariel Batista), along with her girlfriend, Anne (Leslie Nevola) and reconnects with her old friend/love interest, a dorky activist named Lucas (Jake Kaufman). From one seemingly small decision, Elizabeth’s life diverges into two paths. In one, she goes by Liz and stops to listen to a sexy guitar guy in the park. She meets Josh, a surgeon just back from his second tour in the army, who is immediately smitten with her. After a few more chance encounters with Josh, at Kate’s urging, she finally agrees to go on a date with him. As their relationship grows, the two also set up Lucas with Josh’s friend, David (Jake Farnum). After Liz unexpectedly gets pregnant, she and Josh marry and start a family. In the other timeline, Elizabeth goes by Beth and attends a protest with Lucas. She gets a call from another old flame, Stephen (Paul Lucenti), who offers her her dream job as an urban planner. Though she excels in her career, her love life leaves much to be desired, and her loneliness drives her into a disastrous fling with Lucas, which threatens their friendship. As Stephen moves on to Wall Street, Beth moves up in her career and takes on an intern, Elena (Haley Bourne), who clearly reminds Beth of herself when she was younger.

The nature of If/Then makes it somewhat difficult to follow, as the two timelines occur in parallel. The difference between the two is marked primarily by apparel: Liz wears glasses as a part of Kate’s scheme to get her a man by making her look smarter, and she wears a more casual sweater, whereas Beth wears a more formal blazer. There are also supposedly lighting changes, but these are a bit harder to spot.

Such is why this role is particularly demanding: In addition to requiring an amazing level of vocal prowess, it is also essentially two characters in one — or more accurately, one character in two different stories. Sometimes, a switch between the two may occur in the middle of a song or a scene. Even so, Dennis never lets up for a moment. If sharing a name with the character was not enough to prove her suitability for the part, then her performance certainly does. It will be interesting to see how she fares later in the run, after several nights of vocal wear. This is probably part of why a co-study for the role (and some others) was cast.

But Dennis is not the only shining star of the production. There is no weak link in the cast. As demanding as Elizabeth’s role is, the roles of Kate and Lucas are no walks in the park either, and Batista and Kaufman are fantastic. Batista captures the spiritedness of Kate brilliantly. The night I was there, she was having some mic problems, which took away from her performance, but hopefully other nights, this will not be the case. Also notable was Bourne as Beth’s intern, who is proof that big voices come in small packages. Her facial expressions as she responded to the craziness of Beth’s life were also a delight. Though she only appears in a few scenes, when she is on stage, she makes her presence known.

My favorite number of the night was definitely “No More Wasted Time,” which features the leading ladies — Dennis, Batista, Nevola and Bourne — in a powerful quartet as Kate, Anne and Elena convince Beth of her worth. Having those four insanely powerful voices all at full throttle all at once was almost too much for that small space to handle. I would also be remiss not to mention Dennis’ eleven o’clock number, “Always Starting Over,” which is the ultimate showcase of her vocals, as well as the emotional climax of the musical. The only thing that took away from the number was at the end when the remainder of the cast started to set up the next scene. It felt like they were encroaching on what should have been her moment.

This leads to the other problem with this particular choice of musical: It needs to be in a bigger space. The Academy Players’ performance space is tiny, which is fine for a lot of theater, but for a musical that was written for a powerhouse like Idina Menzel, it can be overwhelming. There are times when the performers are right in the audience’s faces, singing at top volume. As you can imagine, this can be uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the talent of the cast makes this more bearable and also makes the choice of musical more understandable. All in all, If/Then is a great showcase of the Academy Players’ amazing talents, despite the spatial setbacks of their venue.

“If/Then” runs through May 20 at the Q2Q Blackbox Theatre in Providence. For tickets, visit academyplayersri.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prove that you are human *

Previous post:

Next post: