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On Your Feet! The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Featuring Music Produced and Recorded by Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine
Directed by Jerry Mitchell
Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
The Fox Theatre
November 7, 2017

Mauricio Martinez, Christie Prades
Photo by Matthew Murphy
On Your Feet! National Tour

The latest national tour at the Fox is a tuneful crowd-pleaser. On Your Feet! is another in the growing genre of “jukebox bio-musicals”, in the vein of Jersey Boys, Beautiful, and more. This time, the subject is the music and life of Latin-pop music icons Gloria and Emilio Estefan, following their story and featuring many of their well-known hits. With a great cast and an excellent soundtrack, this national tour of the recent Broadway production is an entertaining tribute and a compelling story.

While it’s billed as “The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical”, the focus of the story here is primarily on Gloria (Christie Prades), as well as her personal and professional relationship with musician, producer, and her eventual husband Emilio (Mauricio Martinez). The story follows Gloria as a young child growing up in Miami, where she and her family immigrated from Cuba. Her relationships with her father, Jose Fajardo (Jason Martinez), her grandmother Consuelo (Alma Cuervo), and her mother, also named Gloria (Nancy Ticotin). The young Gloria (Amaris Sanchez and Carmen Sanchez, alternating in the role) starts out playing songs on her guitar, and then grows up  taking care of her father as he suffers the progressive effects of MS. She’s not intending a career in music at first, but her grandmother contacts Emilio, who is part of a popular local act called the Miami Latin Boys, and Gloria and her younger sister Rebecca (Claudia Yanez) go to his house for an audition. Eventually, Gloria becomes the lead singer of the band, which gains fame under its new name, Miami Sound Machine, in various countries and crossing over from the Latin market to the Pop market. The show, punctuated with hits like “Anything for You”, “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and the rousing “Conga”, follows the couple’s rise to international fame as well as personal challenges in relationships with Gloria’s family, and Gloria’s fight to regain her health after a devastating tour bus crash, culminating in her celebrated “comeback” performance of “Coming Out of the Dark” on the American Music Awards broadcast in 1991.

This is a well-produced show, with strong production values including David Rockwell’s versatile set, Emilio Sosa’s detailed costumes, Kenneth Posner’s dazzling lighting, and striking projection design by Darrel Maloney. There’s also vibrant, energetic choreography by Sergio Trujillo, and an engaging book by Alexander Dinelaris that emphasizes the importance of family history and relationships in the Estefans’ lives. The music is the main attraction, with hit after hit well-performed by this excellent cast, but it’s not just a concert. There’s a compelling story here, as well.

The cast is uniformly strong, led by the dynamic, strong-voiced Prades as Gloria, who is well-matched by Martinez in a solid, amiable performance as Emilio. The strength of their relationship is an important part of this story, and both of these two make that relationship work with their excellent chemistry. There are also memorable performances from Cuervo as Gloria’s supportive, persistent grandmother Consuelo, Ticotin as the loving but sometimes overprotective mother Gloria Fajardo, and Jason Martinez as Gloria’s father Jose. The whole cast is strong in support, as well, with an excellent singing and dancing ensemble, helping to bring this story, and the music from the chart-topping hits to lesser-known songs, to life with energy and style.

Although On Your Feet! is going to appeal especially to fans of the Estefans and Miami Sound Machine, the story and music are compelling enough to entertain even those who may not be as familiar with the music. There’s an energetic “Megamix” finale that lives up to the title, as well, bringing the audience member to their feet. It’s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of that term.

Cast of On Your Feet!
Photo by Matthew Murphy
On Your Feet! National Tour

The National Tour of On Your Feet! The Emilio & Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical is running at the Fox Theatre until November 19, 2017.

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The Bodyguard
Based on the Warner Bros. film Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Choreographed by Karen Bruce
The Fox Theatre
October 2, 2017

Deborah Cox and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard US Tour

It’s a “jukebox musical” showcasing songs made famous by Whitney Houston, based on a popular film. That’s basically all there is to The Bodyguard, the musical that debuted in London and is now touring the USA, currently running in St. Louis at the Fox. For the most part, it’s entertaining, with some good performances and well-delivered hit songs that really are the main reason to see this show in the first place.

I hadn’t seen the film, but based on the synopses I’ve read, the show’s story has been modified slightly to work better on stage. The story is the same as the movie, though, as superstar singer Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) starts getting disturbing letters from a mysterious stalker (Jorge Paniagua) who breaks into her dressing room during a concert, taking one of her dresses without being noticed by her security team. As a result of this scare, Rachel is persuaded to hire a new bodyguard, the experienced but somewhat secretive Frank Farmer (Judson Mills), who makes fast friends with Rachel’s sister Nicki (Jasmin Richardson) and son Fletcher (Kevelin B. Jones III, alternating with Sebastian Maynard-Palmer), but who is initially distrusted by Rachel herself. Of course, if you know much about the film, you know where this is going, with a somewhat unlikely romance and more intrigue as Frank and the rest of Rachel’s security team zeroes in on the stalker. This all happens with soundtrack of songs from the film as well as other Houston hits, such as “I Have Nothing”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “One Moment In Time”, and of course “I Will Always Love You”, which is set up in a humorous way, first being sung awkwardly by Frank in a Karaoke bar before making its more iconic appearance later in the show.

This is a fairly by-the-numbers plot, and some of the scenes are disjointed–particularly the brief opening scene that isn’t particularly necessary. Still, it’s enjoyable enough, with some good performances–particularly from Cox as Rachel and Richardson as Nicki, who sing the Houston hits impressively. There’s also a strong performance from young Jones as Fletcher, and Mills is fine although a bit one-note as Frank. There’s an energetic ensemble, as well, and the group dance numbers featuring Karen Bruce’s choreography are among the highlights of the show.

Technically, the show has a cinematic look befitting an adaptation of a film. Tim Hatley’s set features many pieces that change out smoothly, representing Rachel’s well-appointed house, a rustic cabin, the karaoke bar, and various concert locations. Hatley’s costumes are also well-suited to the characters, and there’s effective lighting by Mark Henderson. The use of video, designed by Duncan McLean, is particularly impressive, as well.

Overall, I would say if you’re not expecting to be dazzled by the story, and if you want to have a reasonably enjoyable evening at the theatre and listen to some well-sung Whitney Houston hits, The Bodyguard won’t really disappoint. As “jukebox” musicals go, it’s not in the top tier, but it has its moments. The music is really the star here.

Deborah Cox, Judson Mills
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard US Tour

The US Tour of The Bodyguard is running at the Fox Theatre until October 15, 2017.

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An American in Paris
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
The Fox Theatre
January 18, 2017

Garen Scribner, Sara Esty Photo by Matthew Murphy An American in Paris North American Tour

Garen Scribner, Sara Esty
Photo by Matthew Murphy
An American in Paris North American Tour

I have to admit that although I saw the classic film An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly, when I was a small child, what I most remember about it is being somewhat confused and bored by the iconic dance sequence that ends the movie. I guess I was too young to appreciate it. Now, the tour of the stage version with the classic Gershwin score and a revised book is on stage at the Fox, and viewing the story and its dazzling dance sequences as an adult, I’m anything but bored and confused. Although the story has been modified somewhat from the film, this production is visually stunning, emotionally stirring and musically sensational.

The setting, as the title suggests, is Paris. The time is just after the end of World War II. Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner) is a young US Army vet and aspiring painter who finds himself intrigued with the City of Light and with a mysterious young woman that he meets but whose name he doesn’t learn at first. He decides to stay in Paris and wanders into a cafe where he meets fellow American veteran Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), who plays the piano and writes music, hoping to become a successful composer. He also meets Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), the son of wealthy French manufacturers, who harbors the secret dream of becoming a song-and-dance man in America. Eventually, they cross paths with Jerry’s mystery woman, the gifted young ballerina Lise Dassin (Sara Esty), whose mother had been a famous dancer. Lise herself has a secret that ties her to Henri, although both Jerry and Adam find themselves drawn to her and she herself feels drawn to Jerry.  There’s also wealthy heiress and arts patron Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), who forms an attachment to Jerry as well. All the complicated love polygons are only part of the plot, as the ghosts of the past and the spirit of the future battle within the various characters who strive to make something of their lives, and the world, after the war. It’s a well-constructed plot that revises and fleshes out some of the stories from the film, adding extra Gershwin songs in a celebration of life, art, and ultimately hope.

This is such a dance-heavy show that I have to mention that director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s wonderful, lyrical work here. The strong influences of ballet, jazz, and occasionally tap are here in evidence, expertly, energetically, and emotionally danced by the top-notch ensemble and perfectly cast leads. The cast is ably led by Scribner as the outgoing, charming Jerry and Esty as the somewhat mysterious, conflicted Lise.  Their chemistry is outstanding, and their dancing is simply wondrous, especially in the dazzling “An American in Paris” ballet near the end of the show. There are also strong performances from Benson as the sweetly snarky Adam and Ferranti in a witty, sympathetic performance as Milo. Spangler as Henri is also excellent, making the most of a spectacular showcase production number in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. The whole cast here is incredibly strong, showing of incredible dancing skills on such Gershwin classics as “I Got Rhythm”, “S’Wonderful”, and more.

Technically, this show is just plain beautiful. Bob Crowley’s glorious set design is remarkable in its simplicity and its elegance, relying largely on movable set pieces that flow onstage as if they are part of the dance, augmented by truly stunning projections by 59 Productions. Crowley also designed the gorgeous, stylish costumes that add much to the 1940’s air of the production. There’s also spectacular, atmospheric lighting by Natasha Katz that enhances every scene and production number.

This is such a wonderful show. It’s poetic, balletic, and dramatic with just the right amount of humor to move the story along. The characters are well portrayed and their stories are convincing, but what is mostly evident about this production is its celebration of life, art, and music in a visual, auditory, and emotional sense. It’s a screen-to-stage adaptation that honors its source material and manages to expand it in a richly compelling way, and it fills the Fox stage superbly.  It’s definitely a show not to be missed. Now, I need to see the movie again.

Cast of An American in Paris Photo by Matthew Murphy An American in Paris North American Tour

Cast of An American in Paris
Photo by Matthew Murphy
An American in Paris North American Tour

The North American tour of An American In Paris runs at the Fox Theatre until January 29, 2017.

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Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Sam Gold
The Fox Theatre
November 15, 2016

Cast of Fun Home Photo by Joan Marcus Fun Home National Tour

Cast of Fun Home
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home National Tour

Fun Home isn’t a big musical. It’s actually quite small, and not very long. It runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. Still, as short as it is, this is a powerful show. I hadn’t seen it before the national tour came to the Fox, although I had heard great things about it. I’m happy to say that it lives up to the hype.

The show is inventively structured. Based on a celebrated graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, the play introduces us to the author at three stages in her life, as adult Alison (Kate Shindle) is in the process of reflecting on her life story and writing and drawing the graphic novel. As Alison thinks and draws, we see a non-linear depiction of her life, meeting Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) as she lives with her family in a small Pennsylvania town, the daughter of Bruce (Robert Petkoff), a high school English teacher and part-time funeral director; and Helen (Susan Moniz), an actress. Bruce is obsessed with redecorating his family’s grand old house, as well as keeping up the appearance of the perfect happy family. We also get to meet Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), who starts college and experiences many personal discoveries, from her own identity as a lesbian  and her new relationship with girlfriend Joan (Karen Eilbacher), to continued revelations about her father, who is gay but closeted. As Alison learns about life and learns to make her own way, Bruce bristles against the changes in the world and the expectations of others, leading to despair as the older Alison reflects, ponders, and wonders how things could have turned out differently as she uses her art as a cartoonist as a vehicle for her own quest for answers.  The structure is brilliant, as the various stories intertwine and interact, and there’s a strong score to punctuate the drama.

This is an intensely dramatic play, no question, but it also has a great deal of humor, from adult Alison’s wry commentary on her previous selves’ lives as she writes about them, to Medium Alison’s enthusiastic celebration of her feelings for Joan, to Small Alison’s making a hilarious commercial with her brothers (Pierson Salvador as Christian, Lennon Nate Hammond as John) about the funeral home, complete with song and dance. In the midst of this though, is a family tragedy, of a man who cares so much about appearances and feels bound by society’s expectations of him, and of his wife who knows what’s going on and feels increasingly neglected and powerless, to the initially clueless Alison who doesn’t know what’s happening with her father until she’s in college, and the older Alison who still tries to come to terms with the tragic consequences of her father’s actions. It’s a brilliantly written, insightful show full of excellent songs and lucid commentary on the subject of personal growth and development of identity as well as family dynamics and the constant pressure for the parents to keep up appearances, and for the kids, as they grow up, to search for their own authenticity.

There isn’t a list of songs in the program, and I think that’s because the songs are blended so seamlessly in with the rest of the dialogue. This isn’t a sung-through show, but there’s a lot of music packed into that 90 minutes, and it’s excellent. The performers are all top-notch, as well, led by the three Alisons—the sometimes reflective, sometimes sarcastic Shindle as adult Alison, the wide-eyed, enthusiastic Corrigan as Medium Alison, and the thoughtful, playful, brash Baldacchino as Small Alison. Petkoff is also superb as the conflicted Bruce, who struggles to come to terms with his own feelings and reality in the midst of his efforts to construct and protect his own existence. Moniz is also strong as the neglected, caring but increasingly angry Helen, and there are also fine performances from Salvador and Hammond as Christian and John, by Eilbacher as Medium Alison’s outgoing girlfriend Joan, and by Robert Hager as a variety of characters in Bruce’s life.

The technical elements of the show work together well to help maintain the comic and dramatic atmosphere of this production. The Bechdels’ meticulously well-appointed house, adult Alison’s apartment/studio and Medium Alison’s college dorm room and campus spaces, the family’s “Fun Home” (their nickname for the funeral home) and more are well represented in David Zinn’s versatile set. Zinn also designed the costumes, which are also superb, fitting the various characters as well as the changing time periods well. Ben Stanton’s lighting is also remarkable, helping to maintain or shift the tone of scenes as needed and to enhance the overall mood of the production.

Fun Home is a short musical, but there’s a whole lot to see and experience in this one act show. I haven’t read the graphic novel on which it is based, but now I want to. This is a fascinating show, well-crafted in all areas and incredibly well performed. It’s a story of an artist, of a family, and of personal discovery and the struggle for authenticity amid outside expectations as well as self-perception.  It’s an impressive, highly emotional show and I’m glad I was able to see it.  There’s still time to check it out at the Fox. I highly recommend it.

Kate Shindle, Robert Petkoff Photo by Joan Marcus Fun Home National Tour

Kate Shindle, Robert Petkoff
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home National Tour

The national tour of Fun Home is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 27, 2016.

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The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Jack O’Brien
The Fox Theatre
April 26, 2016

 

Kerstin Anderson Photo by Matthew Murphy The Sound of Music National Tour

Kerstin Anderson
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Sound of Music National Tour

The Sound of Music is unquestionably a musical theatre classic.  Since its debut on Broadway in 1959, it has been performed in various productions around the world as well as two live television productions and, of course, the Oscar-Winning movie. I personally have seen so many productions of it that I’ve almost got the show memorized. Audiences generally know what to expect when they see this show. With the new touring production now on stage at the Fox, director Jack O’Brien has brought a good mixture of timelessness and immediacy to this time-honored show, as well as finding a promising young star to lead the cast.

Everyone knows the story, it seems. As Maria (Kerstin Anderson) finds it difficult to fit in at Nonnburg Abbey, the Mother Abbess (Melody Betts) decides the young would-be nun needs to see more of the world. So for that purpose, Maria is sent to be a governess to the seven children of lonely widower Captain Georg Von Trapp (Ben Davis), who since the death of his wife has become more of an authoritarian commander than a father to his children. Maria soon wins her way into the hearts of the children and, eventually, their father as well, despite the romantic efforts of the wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (Teri Hansen), who also wants to marry the Captain. And then there’s the Captain’s enterprising friend Max (Merwin Foard), who hopes to recruit the children–whom Maria has taught to sing–to perform in a big music festival. And then comes the Nazi occupation of Austria, and the drama that follows.

Kerstin Anderson follows in the footsteps of many a Maria, including stage legend Mary Martin and the movie’s iconic Julie Andrews. Anderson, thankfully, doesn’t try to imitate her famous predecessors, although she has a quirkiness about her that is more comparable to Martin than to Andrews. She also has a youthful, energetic spirit and a great voice. As Maria navigates her road from the convent to the Von Trapps’ villa, Anderson visibly matures and acquires a sense of grace and poise. It’s an impressive performance, although she also occasionally tends to deliver her lines in an over-rehearsed, somewhat artificial manner. For the most part, however, she makes an excellent Maria, and she has great chemistry with Ben Davis’s charming, authoritative but increasingly boyish Von Trapp. Their love duet “Something Good” is very sweetly sung and their showcase dance charged with romantic tension. Davis also gets one of the show’s best moments when he leads his family in singing “Edelweiss” at the concert. There’s also a strong comedic performance by Foard as Max, and Betts as the Mother Abbess radiates kindness and strength, stopping the show with a soaring rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Other standouts in the cast are Paige Silvester as a particularly rebellious eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, and Svea Elizabeth Johnson as the wise, observant daughter Brigitta. The children have a good rapport with Anderson’s Maria, and all the production numbers are well-done, including the energetic “Do Re Mi” and “The Lonely Goatherd”.

Visually, the production is impressive as well. Douglas W. Schmidt’s excellent set is notable for its period authenticity and colorful painted backdrops of beautiful mountain vistas, well-lit by lighting designer Natasha Katz. The costumes by Jane Greenwood are well-crafted and suited to the characters, from the nuns’ habits to Maria’s succession of dresses that range from the frumpy to the elegant. The children’s play costumes, supposedly made by Maria from the curtains in her bedroom, are appropriately whimsical. Maria’s hairstyles also go through a believable progression throughout the production, so kudos to hair designer Tom Watson for that effect.

Overall, the tone of this production strikes a good medium between the classic and the new. There’s a sense of energy and urgency brought to the proceedings, as well as an authentic-seeming 1930’s sensibility and an “old Broadway” style without seeming too dated. It’s not trying to to overly innovative or different. It’s just trying to tell the story and tell it well, and for the most part, this iteration of The Sound of Music achieves that goal. It’s a delightful show.

Ben Davis and cast Photo by Matthew Murphy The Sound of Music National Tour

Ben Davis and cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Sound of Music National Tour

The national tour of The Sound of Music is running at the Fox Theatre until May 8, 2016.

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The Bridges of Madison County
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Based the Novel by Robert James Waller
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher, Direction Recreated by Tyne Rafaeli
The Fox Theatre
April 5, 2016

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The Bridges of Madison County was one of those books that everyone seemed to be reading in the early 1990’s. It has since become a well-known film, and now it’s a musical, featuring a score by one of the most celebrated modern composers, Jason Robert Brown. And the score is gorgeous, as are the production values. Unfortunately, despite a good cast, the story isn’t quite as gorgeous.

Although this was a best-selling book and a popular movie, I haven’t read the book and this version is the first adaptation I’ve seen. It tells the story of a lonely Italian woman, Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) who married an American soldier after World War II and moved with him to his farm in Iowa. After years of living with Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) and raising their now-teenage children Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (John Campione), Francesca is bored with farm life and misses Italy. When Bud and the kids take a trip to a state fair to show off Carolyn’s prize steer, Francesca stays home, where she soon meets traveling photographer Robert Kincaid (Andrew Samonsky), who has been sent by National Geographic  to take pictures of the area’s famous covered bridges. He stops at Francesca’s to ask for directions to the last bridge, and the two are soon intrigued by one another, as Robert has recently traveled to Francesca’s hometown of Naples and his more worldly, less conventional outlook on life intrigues her. They begin an affair, despite the frequent calls from Bud and Francesca’s neighbor and friend Marge (Mary Callanan) to check up on her.

This affair is apparently supposed to be life-changing for both Francesca and Robert, but the way it’s presented in this musical, I don’t really buy it. Everything moves too quickly and isn’t given the proper resonance. I keep finding myself sympathizing with the nice-but-boring Bud, and with his and Francesca’s kids, who have no clue what’s going on back home while they have their own “adventures” at the fair that don’t have much bearing on the rest of the story. The music is gorgeous, representing a variety of styles from a more classical sound to country and folk, and there are some stand-out songs, some with clever settings like Marge standing in for a radio singer singing “Get Closer” as Robert and Francesca dance. There’s also the haunting “Who You Are and Who We Want to Be” and Robert’s memorable “It All Fades Away”, but despite the beautiful music, the story around the songs reads as kind of shallow, with the connection between Francesca and Robert seeming little more than superficial, and the story’s continuation after the key events making the supposedly torrid affair seem kind of pointless.

The show looks great, as well. With a positively stunning set design by Michael Yeargan, adapted for the tour by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and beautifully realized lighting by Donald Holder and Michael Jones, the atmosphere of the sweeping farmlands of Iowa is well-embodied. There’s also excellent, well-suited costume design by Catherine Zuber that captures the style of the time period.

The cast for this show is also excellent, led by a top-notch performance by Stanley as the disillusioned Francesca. Her presence and strong voice help to make her character relatable despite the lack of chemistry with Samonsky’s nice-looking but somewhat bland Robert. The real stand-outs in this cast are the supporting performers, especially Callanan as the nosy but supportive neighbor Marge, and David Hess as her affable, loving husband Charlie. Houlahan and Campione are also excellent as Francesca’s children, the nervous but determined Carolyn and the initially rebellious but well-meaning Michael. Titmas is also fine in the somewhat flatly written role of Bud, and there’s a strong ensemble that fills out the cast, representing townspeople and various people from Francesca’s and Robert’s personal history.

The Bridges of Madison County is  a good-looking, great sounding show, but I wish it was more than that. It’s set up as a great love story but it doesn’t come across that way, especially with the lack of chemistry between the leads and the sense that most of the subplots are merely window-dressing for the unconvincing main event. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if the story is better told in novel form, but here it’s all kind of thin. Still, it’s Jason Robert Brown, so the music is wonderful, and the songs are well-sung.  There’s enough here for a reasonably interesting story, but I wish there had been more of a point to it all.

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Fox Theatre until April 17, 2016.

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If/Then
Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
The Fox Theatre
March 15, 2016

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

I think most people have “what if” moments in their lives. Maybe it’s that class in college that you wish you had taken, or that person whose invitation you wish you had accepted. How would your life have been different if you had made one simple choice differently? The musical If/Then, currently on stage at the Fox Theatre, takes questions like that and makes a story out of them–or more precisely, two stories running concurrently.  It’s an intriguing concept that’s been given an inventive production, based on the Broadway staging. It’s not always easy to follow, but it’s an impressive production, and extremely entertaining.

If/Then‘s central figure is Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), who is seen wondering about a particular day in New York City’s Central Park. Having just returned to the city to start over after a failed marriage and 12 years out West, Elizabeth is presented with a dilemma–two friends, and which one to follow. Does she stay in the park with her new neighbor Kate (Tamyra Gray), or does she leave to join her former college boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in a protest he’s organizing? The show presents both scenarios side-by-side, with Elizabeth going by the nickname “Liz” when she stays with Kate, and by “Beth” when she goes with Lucas. The name difference actually helps the audience to follow the plot, as Elizabeth’s life verges in potentially confusing directions, and the two timelines both feature some of the same characters but also others who are unique to one particular path. Most importantly in the “Liz” plot is Josh (Matthew Hydzik), a doctor just returned from a military tour overseas, who becomes her love interest in that plot while in the “Beth” plot, she accepts a high-powered city planning job and becomes involved in more complicated personal relationships. There isn’t much else I can say about the story that won’t spoil it, but I will say that the fates of Elizabeth’s friends are also affected by the divergence in her own paths, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

This isn’t an entirely original idea. There have been a few movies and stories with similar concepts, but this one has the team responsible for one of my favorite modern musicals, Next to Normal, behind it, and that definitely got my attention. Still, the music here isn’t as memorable as it is in Next to Normal, and the story can be hard to follow at times. I can’t even name many of the songs after seeing the show without having to consult the program. The show also seems to be suggesting a “moral” that is somewhat problematic, although explaining that in too much detail would spoil the ending. I’ll just say that one of the endings seems happier based on whether love or career is put first in Elizabeth’s life.

The casting is solid, with strong performances from the leads and the ensemble. Burns is a likable protagonist, with a strong, belty voice that’s occasionally too reminiscent of her Broadway and tour predecessor Idina Menzel. Still, Burns portrays both the “Liz” and “Beth” sides of Elizabeth’s story well, and her chemistry with Hydzik’s amiable, charming Josh is particularly convincing. Gray is full of energy and confidence as Kate, and she’s supported well by Janine DiVita as Kate’s girlfriend, Anne. Anthony Rapp, reprising his Broadway role as Lucas, is strong in both timelines, one of which gets him a kind doctor boyfriend named David (Marc Delacruz). Lucas, in fact, probably has the most significant change depending on the timeline, and Rapp portrays these differences well. There’s also a strong ensemble portraying various characters in support of both timelines.

Staging-wise, this show makes  strong visual impression, but also somewhat generic. The set, designed by Mark Wendland, is a modular collection of beams, bridges, and modular set pieces that move about as needed, with a great use of projections designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully, especially in the suggestion of moving Subway trains. The park setup is more “general park” than Central Park, really, and the costumes, by Emily Rebholz, are suitably New York-ish. It’s a somewhat generalized version of New York that works for the show, but isn’t particularly distinctive.

Overall, I would say If/Then is interesting and entertaining, although it tends to be a little confusing as well. It’s not as brilliant or memorable as Next to Normal, but it’s a good concept and generally well presented. Most of all, the great cast is what makes this show worth seeing. Your life probably won’t change radically if you choose not to see it, but it if you do, it would be a good choice.

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

The National Tour of If/Then runs at the Fox Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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