Sunday, July 9, 2017

If/Then (The Empty Space 2017)

I am reasonably certain that this is the most modern musical - or indeed stage production -  I have seen. It premiered on Broadway in 2014, and featured Idina Menzel, fresh off of Frozen, in the lead role.

There were two reasons I decided to see this with my lovely bride, Amanda, who shares my love for live theater. First, The Empty Space has proven to put on solid and imaginative productions that have never disappointed me. (And the fact that they do so with low ticket prices and small budgets is even more amazing.) The second is, I recognized several of the lead actors and figured they would be great in anything. My reasoning proved to be correct, and we enjoyed a fine performance.

If/Then is a musical, which presents some challenges at a venue like The Empty Space. Because of the small size, live music isn’t really an option. (Unless you mean a guy with a guitar. Even a piano would be a tight fit.) So canned music was the only real option for a score like this. And then, there is the other challenge of the venue. Microphones and speakers would be overkill, and preventing feedback would be a nightmare. (And how do you do effective monitors in a theater with the audience on three sides?) While I’m sure enough lucre would solve these challenges, six figures of technological magic doesn’t fit with the Empty Space ethic.

So, two speakers at the front of the room for the soundtrack, reasonable volume levels, and actors that had to have real vocal projection. And stay on pitch despite challenging acoustics. As a musician, I know how this is. You are out there naked. And the cast delivered.

The plot of If/Then is roughly as follows (a few spoilers are in the review, but I have attempted to keep them to a minimum.) Elizabeth is 39, and fresh off a failed marriage. She moves back to New York City (of course, right?) to start a new chapter in her life. In the park, she meets up with two old friends from her college days: Kate, a bubbly and spontaneous kindergarten teacher with plans to get Elizabeth to loosen up as “Liz” and find true love; and Lucas, an introverted housing activist who hopes to enlist the reliable “Beth” in his cause to better the city. Elizabeth is then presented with the choice of two paths. Does she go with Kate? Or with Lucas? At that point, the play splits into two parallel stories, each telling of the result of one path.

The two stories are intertwined throughout, so one must be alert to follow each one as the actors switch back and forth. Between the book itself and the specifics of this production, I felt the stories were not difficult to follow.

In the Lucas plot, Beth gets a call from Steven, a former beau, who is now a bigwig in the NYC planning department. She scores a job, and builds a successful career in which she brings together the needs of both developers and tenants. In the Kate plot, Liz has a chance meeting with Josh, a doctor and soldier just returned from duty, and she finds true love. I don’t consider that much of a spoiler, because it is in the promotional material for the play, and because this all happens in the first four songs. Where the stories go from there is interesting, because everything is intertwined. Elizabeth’s decisions don’t just affect her arc of the story, but they make for real differences in what happens in the lives of the others.

Obviously, a key theme of If/Then is our own questions of what might have been. Whether you go with John Greenleaf Whittier:

For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, 'It might have been'.

Or Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Either way, the sentiment is one that haunts us. Frost points out that way leads on to way, and wish as we might, we never can come back to those same crossroads and try again. The chance to explore two paths in this play is interesting for that reason. (Elizabeth herself says she thinks about what the future would be with each choice - she is, shall we say, a bit neurotic…)

But the flip side of this is the truth that every choice means embracing something - and giving something else up. And then life messes with you anyway. Whatever Liz chooses, life happens to her. On the one hand, she does have the ability to determine some of her destiny. Her choices do have consequences. On the other, plenty of things she does not intend to happen do. Fate and the Lady will have their way.

In fact, there is a song about this. Kate is very much on the side of “fate controls our destiny” while Elizabeth is pure rationality (which is why she doesn’t always handle fate very well). Among other lines in “It’s a Sign,” is one where a cast member notes that today a pigeon shit on his head - it must be a sign!

A few other songs really stood out as well written. In a number that alone is a reason why this musical isn’t really for kids, “What the Fuck?” is Elizabeth (in both of the stories) trying to figure out both what happened and particularly why she did something kind of crazy. As a scream into the void railing against the fates and one’s own weakness, it’s a good song. And it was quite well performed by Nancee Steiger.

Speaking of great performances, Steiger also killed it in “I Hate You.” To say too much more would be to give away some of the plot, but suffice it to say that it too has a bit of the rage against the fates and Elizabeth’s poor coping with feelings of powerlessness.

I’ll mention a few other memorable lines. In both stories, Elizabeth has a sequence of really awful (and hilarious) dates. After one with an insufferable investment banker, she remarks to Kate, “Not even to repopulate the earth…”

Another comes later, from Lucas (who is an interesting character: Elizabeth’s choices influence whether he ever comes to terms with his sexuality) during an awkward surprise birthday party. Lucas says something she doesn’t want to hear, and she responses: “Lucas, you’re drunk.” “That doesn’t mean I’m wrong!”

I do want to say a few words about the cast.

Nancee Steiger in the lead role as Elizabeth/Liz/Beth was fantastic. She previously had a major role in The Glass Menagerie in which she was convincing as the mentally damaged sister Laura. While I knew from that play that she had real acting chops, I was not aware that she could sing. And sing she can. I found her numbers to be filled with emotion, and not just overt passion, but the feelings you find in quiet moments, when she dropped her voice almost, but not quite, to the level where you had to strain to hear. (That’s a skill, and I was impressed.) As in the Williams play, she fully inhabited her character, and made her believable and resonant. My only reservation is that she can’t possibly be old enough to be 39. I can see why she got the part, though. She was the right choice despite her youth. 

 Nancee Steiger as Elizabeth/Liz/Beth

I was also interested in seeing Justin Thompson in the role of Lucas. Earlier this year, he stole the show as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. This was a bit of a different character from the ribald and profane jokester - Lucas can be a clown, but he is also deadly serious. Thompson’s acting in this one was likewise memorable and well done. His one weakness is that he lacks the vocal skills of the other leads - he was good enough, but couldn’t match Steiger in their scenes together. His portrayal of Lucas was otherwise excellent, so this is a very minor quibble. 

 Bethany Lahammer (Kate) and Justin Thompson (Lucas)

Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, Nick Ono followed up his turn as Romeo with a supporting role as Josh in this one. He too sings quite well, and held his own in the duets. After a Romeo which was perhaps a bit over the top (though this is a matter of taste - his interpretation was quite defensible), it was interesting to see him in a more serious role, as the faithful, kind, and introverted Josh, who isn’t always sure what to do with Liz and her analytic and OCD approach to things. In a modern (and rather feminist) play, it is often hard to sell the romance as the desirable choice. In this case, Ono made a solid sell. As much as one wants to see Beth set the world on fire with her work, one also wants to see her with Josh, because he is a great catch. 

 Nancee Steiger (Elizabeth) and Nick Ono (Josh) I love the shirt. 
"If you've got it, haunt it."

Finally, let me mention Bethany Lahammer as Kate. I am sure I have seen her in other productions, but I can’t remember exactly where. I thought she had an outstanding voice, and portrayed her character well. It was always a thrill to see her in a scene.

The rest of the cast were good. The supporting parts were well played, and the bit players generally fine. A few issues with pitch here and there (sorry, musicians know) but considering the acoustical challenges, I have no right to complain.

One word on the staging. I never cease to be impressed by what The Empty Space can do with such a small area. It is located in an older strip mall. The “stage” is smaller than my living room, there is no true backstage (it doubles as a lobby, art gallery, and concession area) and whatever furniture starts on stage pretty much has to end there, because there is nowhere else for it to go. The ceiling is low, so lighting is challenging and curtains are pretty much impossible. So sets must be creative and versatile. 

In this case, the set was truly minimalist. There were two rolling walls that fit just right in the side entrances. They doubled as everything from actual walls, stages, stairs, and a bed. There were three rolling frames which resembled taller versions of those luggage frames you see at hotels. And there were basic institutional padded chairs. And a side table. And that was it. From these, one had doors, subway trains, an airplane, park benches, a bar, a rooftop, and more. And every step of the changes were done by the cast. I find this sort of thing thrilling to watch and I love the creativity that goes into designing sets like this. Veteran director and actor Ron Warren and Vocal Director Michelle Weingarden-Bandes are credited for the set design, and my hat is off to them.

My final thoughts are this: the themes of this play really resonated with me. I too tend to wonder what might have been had different choices been made. In my particular case, I can see two very different courses that are or might have been. Had my parents not gotten involved in the Patriarchy movement, I may well have avoided a lot of unnecessary stress and conflict from my teens onward. And I wonder if our relationship might have been closer now. On the other hand, I can trace the connections easily that led to my meeting my wife, and I would suffer any of the pain over again to get her, because she is the best thing that fate and choices have brought me. So of course I ask “What if?”

And on the other hand, my wife to a degree faced the choice Elizabeth did. She met me when she was very young, when she really did not expect she would ever marry, and with plans for a career. Five children later, there is no doubt she has a different life than she once intended. As, if I am honest, she has sacrificed more for me than I for her. (A wife and kids and a chance to make music was my dream. And a cat. Can’t forget the cat.) My goal, therefore, is to do my best to make sure that her choice of me does not require any more of a sacrifice than necessary. I encouraged and supported her in finishing her nursing degree, and have done my best to cheer her on in her career. Once the kids are grown, I hope to support her in pursuing some of her deferred dreams as well. Road leads on to road, and you can never go back. But you can always make the best of the roads you are on.

If/Then runs Fridays and Saturdays through July 22. If you are a local, this is a great show - and check out the other shows The Empty Space has planned. I may see you there.

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