Lawrence Toppman

‘If/Then’ a complex answer to the question ‘What if?’

Jackie Burns (center) stars as a woman torn between alternative lives and men in “If/Then.”
Jackie Burns (center) stars as a woman torn between alternative lives and men in “If/Then.”

For some reason, all the spring-summer musical tours at Belk Theater this year are about choices that inevitably have a painful cost. Main characters in “Once,” “Beautiful,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The Wizard of Oz” face dilemmas that can’t be resolved in complete happiness, whatever they do.

“If/Then,” which opened Tuesday night, tackles that subject with complexity and honesty, right up to a sugar-coated ending that seems out of place. The play sets up its theme in an early line – “Every day, your life starts again” – and follows that later with “Every choice that you make is a kind of a loss.”

Urban planner Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) moves back to New York at 38 after ending a bad, childless marriage. She meets old flame Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in a park soon after encountering effervescent new pal Kate (Tamyra Gray).

She faces a turning point at once: She can go with the socially conscious Lucas, who calls her Beth, to a protest. Or she can hang out with Kate (who calls her Liz) and ponder hunky soldier Josh (Matthew Hydzik), who has just gotten back from a battle zone and courageously asked Liz for a date. The book by Brian Yorkey, who wrote lyrics for Tom Kitt’s music, then takes Liz/Beth through simultaneously unfolding stories.

In Liz’s world, Lucas meets a doctor (Mark Delacruz) who wants him to commit to marriage, Kate marries Anne (Janine DiVita), and college teacher Liz wonders whether a hip New Yorker could love a small-town Nebraska guy who enlisted in the Army.

In Beth’s world, the needy Lucas offers clingy but devoted love she doesn’t return. She becomes a powerful planner in the mayor’s office, where married supervisor Stephen (Jacques C. Smith) has a yen for her. Beth’s career-vs.-love dilemma didn’t interest me as much as Liz’s quandaries, but Burns depicts the two personalities clearly. She even seemed to sing a little differently for the two women, and she wears glasses as Liz for quick delineation.

If you have read about this show elsewhere, pretty much all you saw is true. It’s ambitious; it’s directed flowingly by Michael Greif (who directed Rapp in the Broadway “Rent” 20 years ago); it resolves clumsily; subplots for the gay couples, though well-played by the actors, occasionally feel tacked on. (The show is complex enough with the stories of Liz and Beth going through convolutions.)

The Kitt-Yorkey score doesn’t achieve the heights of their “Next to Normal” but does have songs that stand out for humor (“Hey Kid”), quick-patter intricacy (“Some Other Me”) or old-fashioned, heart-on-the-sleeve emotion (“Always Starting Over,” where Burns pulls out the stops). The score gets noticeably stronger in Act 2, a rare thing in musicals.

Rapp created the role of Lucas on Broadway, and Burns took it over from Idina Menzel both there and on this national tour. Oddly, she has more chemistry with Hydzik, but all three of them get fully inside their characters.

The early word on Burns, who played Elphaba on a “Wicked” tour after Menzel created the role, was that she’s been turned into an Idina clone: Same haircut and costumes, same belting vocal style, same ability to mesmerize and occasionally overpower an audience. But Burns has her own fragility and angry energy. She shows subtler shades, as well as Liz and Beth’s primary colors, and she’s not painting by Menzel’s numbers.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘If/Then’

When: July 19-24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $29.50-$119.50.

Running time: 160 minutes with one intermission.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.

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