Review> If/Then, the Musical, Follows the Life of an Urban Planner

Art, East, On View, Review
Monday, April 14, 2014
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Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then. (Joan Marcus)

Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then. (Joan Marcus)

If/Then
Richard Rogers Theater
226 West 46th Street, New York
Scheduled to play through October 12, 2014

THINK OF EACH PLAZA, PIER, AND PUBLIC PARK—
HOW MANY SIT THERE EMPTY, LONELY, DARK—

The Broadway musical If/Then starts in Madison Square Park with its unmistakable folding seats, tables, and umbrellas, a signature of Janette Sadik-Khan’s overhauling of public spaces during the Bloomberg administration. In this musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (the team behind Next to Normal) city planner Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) returns to New York from Arizona where she’s just gotten out of a failed marriage—and urban sprawl.

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in If/Then. (Joan Marcus)

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in If/Then. (Joan Marcus)

YOU AND I, WE CAN DRAW A BRAND-NEW GRID.
EVERYTHING THAT YOU DREAMED OF AS A KID.

If New York is a place of infinite possibilities, then Elizabeth has choices, here pared down to two. Should she be called Beth or Liz; should she meet up with her daring new lesbian neighbor or her old college community organizer former boyfriend (who is now also gay); should she take a job in the city’s department of planning or teach the subject?

(Courtesy If/Then)

(Courtesy If/Then)

ENDING THE NIGHT AT TWENTY-THIRD AND THIRD…
LIZ AND HER DATE, WHO’S HANGING ON EACH WORD…

Color coding helps us keep her two-track story choices straight (as well as eyeglasses for Liz, none for Beth). The metaphor of planning a city and planning a life are clear, but the frisson for New Yorkers who care about the built environment are the specific references.

ON A GODFORSAKEN STREET OUT WHERE BUSHWICK TURNS TO QUEENS
IS A HOME FOR A MAN OF EXTREMELY MEAGER MEANS

There are songs called “A Map of New York” and “Ain’t No Man Manhattan,” and references to current issues and locations in the five boroughs.

WITH THE ARTIST DOWN IN RED HOOK
WHO LOST THE PLACE HE WORKS IN
SO YOU COULD BUILD SOME CONDOS ON THE WATER?

There’s talk about the Harlem riverfront, Long Island City, Roosevelt Island, as well as design competitions, eliminating luxury towers in favor of (affordable) housing units, and reconfiguring plazas. In her Amanda Burden incarnation, Beth wins the American Planning Association’s Burnham Prize.

WE NEVER WALK A STRAIGHT LINE.
WE NEVER CHECK A STREET SIGN.

The set features a mirrored overhang that reflect the action, a nice touch that emphasizes the theme, but also allows us to view the staged machinations like choreography and reflect on the double-sided nature of things. The rest of the set is trusses, scaffolds, frames, stairs and catwalks.

Cast of If/Then. (Joan Marcus)

Cast of If/Then. (Joan Marcus)

If only New York City wondered about its Sliding Doors options the way that Elizabeth does hers. What if we didn’t have that zoning change that allowed air rights? Or we had saved Penn Station? Or if Robert Moses had built the Lower Manhattan Expressway across Soho? What might the city be like today?

ON THE WEST SIDE A RAILYARD IS RECLAIMED…
WAITING TO BE REBUILT AND THEN RENAMED…

Menzel made her reputation in the original Rent 18 years ago, which explored the gentrification of the Lower East Side in the 1980s in the age of AIDS. Nearly 20 years later, the play ends with the rebuilding of the new Penn Station.

LET’S MAKE A MAP OF NEW YORK, YOU AND ME.

[ALL CAPS are lyrics by Brian Yorkey.]

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