Theatre Review: “If/Then”

Circle Players present a look at the murky depths of our 'what ifs'

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"If/Then" at The Circle Players Poster

If you ever stood in the aisle of a toy store as a child with a Magic 8-Ball, shook it vigorously, and asked it a question, you essentially understand the premise of the 2014 Broadway musical If/Then, which is currently being performed by The Circle Players through this coming Sunday.

 

We still often gaze into the murky depths and ask our own unique what ifs.  Who could we be if we had made different decisions or followed another path?  (Paging Robert Frost.)  Those ifs and buts are especially prominent for Elizabeth, the musical’s thirty-eight year old protagonist on the cusp of a midlife crisis par excellence.  In essence, before the show begins she went to Disney World and all she got was a lousy marriage capped with an equally lousy divorce.  So, picking herself back up, she moves to New York to begin again.

Here’s where those lingering existential questions that keep us up at night begin to swirl.  What if Elizabeth could become a Liz?  Perhaps a Beth?  What would those women’s lives come to look like?  And with this unwinding duality comes a difficult point of discussion: how does the audience manage to keep these two realities separated?  Much to the show’s peril, Brian Yorkey’s book doesn’t do the best job of creating a clean, clear divide.

Even Peter Marks, the Washington Post’s theatre critic, brought this question to bear as the show had its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre back in 2013.  When you have an entire cast playing the same people on parallel yet wholly divergent paths, how do you solve a problem like Maria?  Sorry, wrong musical.  But still… how do you keep Liz and Beth and their unique lives apart when both lives are populated by the exact same friends?  Any director has to avoid the inelegance of a Jekyll v. Hyde moment and yet make clear which universe we’re hurtling through.

Unfortunately, it’s a difficult dance to do forwards, backwards, in flats, or in heels.  But the devil is in the writing, not the presentation.  The cast populating The Circle Players‘ production are uniformly great and do their best to keep the stories flowing on their individual trajectories.  This is Nashville, after all, and the cast’s voices more than meet the challenges of Tom Kitt’s score.

As Elizabeth (Liz/Beth), actress Emily Summers has a lot to deal with in defining her two halves.  One moment, she’s the career-driven Beth, eschewing love and choosing to prioritize her professional goals and the next she’s grappling with Liz, the side of her that seems much more in touch with her real emotions and desires.  And let’s deal with the elephant in the room that the woman whose voice the score was written for was Idina Menzel.  I’m glad to share with you that Ms. Summers ably handles the demands.

So as to avoid spoilers, I unfortunately can’t disclose a whole lot of detail about the remainder of the characters, the friends and lovers whose lives create the third strand of this French-braided story.  Bryan Royals as Josh and the duo of Taylor Simon and Morgan Riggs as Kate and Anne, respectively, are particular stand-outs among the excellent ensemble.

If/Then isn’t the easiest show to wrestle with, but then again any performance that plays so fast and loose with our linear concept of time can be a challenge.  Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along play their own tricks with time and each presents its own difficulties onstage.  The Circle Players’ company and in particular director Matthew Hayes Hunter earn the ovation that comes at the end of the performance.

You’ve got three more chances to see If/Then on Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon.  Details and ticket information can be found at The Circle Players’ website.

 

If/Then, presented by The Circle Players, is being presented at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre at 2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd. in Nashville.