On a fateful New York day, Elizabeth — a recently divorced, 38-year-old city planner from Phoenix — embarks on a new life in the city.
She reconnects with an old acquaintance, Lucas; strikes up a friendship with a zany, free-spirited kindergarten teacher named Kate; and has a chance encounter with Josh, an Army doctor who has just returned from an overseas assignment. He asks her out, but she’s not sure.
Thus begins "If/Then," the 2014 Broadway musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, authors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal" (2009), which chronicled a family shattered by a mother's bipolar disorder.
In “If/Then,” which closes its national tour this week at the Fox Theatre, Elizabeth (Jackie Burns in a role created for Idina Menzel) pauses to consider how her life would look had she taken a different path on that pivotal Manhattan day.
“What If?” she sings in the show’s big opening number, thereby setting up the parallel universes of her twin personae, Liz and Beth. Two roads diverged in a wood; she takes them both.
Liz misses out on a dream job in the city’s urban planning department, becomes a college professor, and, after some indecision, eventually marries Josh (Matthew Hydzik).
Beth throws herself into the career that eludes Liz. And while she flirts with her boss, Stephen (Jacques C. Smith), and strings the earnest Lucas (Anthony Rapp) along, she never really connects with either.
Though the premise feels a little schizo at first, once you get into the groove of this puzzle-like, rule-bending musical, it works its way into your heart and insists on staying there — for 2 hours, 45 minutes, including intermission.
As directed by Michael Greif, director of the original "Rent," the cast is powerfully good, particularly Burns and Tamyra Gray, the Atlanta native who plays the quirky Kate.
Tall and charismatic, Burns is an unconventional beauty with an astonishing vocal instrument. Yes, she can belt like Menzel, but she can also exude the honey-soaked twang of a country songbird like Dolly Parton. Gray is a powerhouse singer, too, and here, her outsize, plainspoken character provides a much-needed blast of comedy.
Rapp, known for originating the role of Mark Cohen in the now 20-year-old “Rent,” is a wonderful actor who can convey irony and snark by simply raising an eyebrow. Hydzik’s Josh is mysterious and soulful: He will become the beacon and anchor of the sometimes emotionally overwrought Liz. Smith, playing a character who is a bit of a third (or fourth) wheel, makes for a handsome and seductive executive type.
In a bit of structural mirroring, both Kate and Lucas gravitate toward same-sex relationships: she with the luscious Anne (Janine DiVita), he with the sweetly accommodating David (the lovely Marc Delacruz). In the end, Elizabeth is not only trying to come to grips with the men and women in her life, but also the men and women in their lives.
Kitt (who composed the music) and Yorkey (who wrote the book and lyrics) have created a complex stew that is as thoughtful as it is dizzying. Designers Mark Wendland (sets), Emily Rebholz (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting) and Brian Ronan (sound) contribute a world for the dueling stories to collide and intersect.
Atlanta is lucky to see this mesmerizing tale as it winds up its journey. You may find it challenging and splintered. But in the end, it’s worth it.