‘If/Then’ at Brown Paper Box Co. is a Timeline-Bending Musical About Personal Struggles

If/Then, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and directed by Elyse Dolan, is a musical about a city planner named Elizabeth (Amanda Giles) who has just moved to New York after a difficult divorce. In the show’s first moments, she meets some friends in Central Park and is soon presented with a choice: does she go with her friend Lucas (Parker Guidry) to a protest, or does she go with her other friend Kate (Bridget Adams-King) to an outdoor concert in Brooklyn? The following scenes alternate between the two universes created by this seemingly insignificant choice. The Elizabeth who goes with Lucas acquires the nickname of Beth, and soon lands a dream job designing parks in the city. The Elizabeth who goes with Kate soon acquires glasses, and is nicknamed Liz. She does not get her dream job, but eventually pursues a relationship with ex-soldier Josh (Michael Peters), with all the ups and downs that entails.

The ensemble work is incredibly strong; choreographer Katie Capp has created a fast-moving New York City, with all its frantic terror and vibrance, using only the bodies onstage. Music direction (Rachel Hoovler) contributes to the worldbuilding by constructing complex harmonies sung by the ensemble that paint the noise of the city; the singing from the entire cast is excellent. The set, from designer Jeremy Hollis, is mostly brick walls and doorways at odd angles, flexibly portraying a wide variety of locations while also contributing to the general NYC funk. I adore this minimalist approach to musical storytelling; it was thoroughly effective in Brown Paper Box Co’s previous show Little Women last year, and is just as well done here. The small band and barebones design accentuate that this is a show with a very small scope; not about revolutions or worlds, but the inner lives of everyday people.

I particularly appreciate the show’s commitment to the casual inclusion of main characters with various queer identities. Kate (played with gusto and charisma by Bridget Adams-King) is a lesbian in a committed relationship, which is treated by all characters as perfectly normal, subject to all the ups and downs of any such connection. Lucas (played with a straightforward, huggable charm by Parker Guidry), meanwhile, is bisexual; in one timeline he starts a relationship with a man, and in the other he is in love with a woman. Again, this is portrayed with a refreshing mix of indifference and respect; both relationships are treated the same as any other. This is admittedly a low bar, but I am so unused to seeing any openly bisexual person onstage that I was nonetheless delighted to see some small reflection of myself in a musical.

Despite the effort and skill of this production, I simply wasn’t able to connect with the text. Both versions of our protagonist are played brilliantly by Amanda Giles, who plays Elizabeth as a thoughtful, hesitant, and often neurotic sort of person who is nonetheless capable of great introspection. However, Liz and Beth are so similar in personality that their timelines bleed together. Beth worries that if she were to have kids she might resent them — meanwhile, Liz actually has kids, and lo and behold she starts to resent them. Beth has a near-death experience and becomes depressed — meanwhile, Liz loses someone close to her, and she also becomes depressed. Often, I found myself scrambling to remember which timeline we were in. Other than some cool transitions, the text never seems to take full advantage of its premise. This contributes to an overall lack of urgency that makes the show feel longer than it should. It’s difficult to say whether this is the fault of a libretto and score that often feel repetitive, or direction that is focused more on character than pacing.

Of course, the painful similarity of the two timelines could be part of the point. The moral we reach at the end of If/Then seems to be that it’s always going to be futile imagining what goes on in those other timelines — what heartbreak might have been avoided, what better opportunities might have come along. You can fantasize about how the grass might be greener on the other side, but ultimately that fantasy is about wishing for power you can’t have. It distracts you from the very real fact that you have more power over your own life than you think.

So I can understand the appeal of choosing to make Liz and Beth face similar struggles. Her issues aren’t solved by a dream job or a change in circumstance. Like many of our issues, they stem from within, and must be grappled with in every timeline.

A valuable idea, certainly, and one that many folks likely need to hear. It’s just that this premise has been so thoroughly exhausted that it rings somewhat empty. A talented cast and creative team do the best they can with the material, and this is almost enough to make If/Then a moving and affecting evening. I don’t think it quite reaches those heights, but you may think differently. As it is, this show is worth seeing for the stellar acting, singing, and technical craftsmanship on display.

Amanda Giles – Elizabeth
Bridget Adams-King – Kate
Parker Guidry – Lucas
Michael Peters – Josh
Matthew Fayfer* – Stephen
Jennifer Ledesma – Elena
Alanna Chavez – Anne (u/s Elizabeth)
Michael Idalski – David (u/s Josh)
Darian J. Duah – Ensemble (u/s Stephen)
Will Kazda – Ensemble (u/s David)
Grace McDonell – Ensemble (u/s Anne, Elena, & Kate)
Micah Kronlokken – Swing for Ensemble & Lucas

Elyse Dolan – Director
Rachel Hoovler ​- Musical Director
Eric Backus​ – Co-Sound Designer
Arran Bowen* – Assistant Production Manager/Props
Katie Capp – Choreographer
Liz Cooper – Lighting Designer
Kaitlyn Guerrieri* – Front of House Manager
Jeremy Hollis* – Production Manager/Set Designer
Abigail Lafont ​- Intimacy Designer
​Jennifer Ledesma – Assistant Choreographer/Dance Caption​
Averi Paulsen – Co-Sound Designer
Jessica Robinson ​- Assistant Stage Manager
Si Squires-Kasten – Assistant Director/Stage Manager
Paul Michael Thomson – Casting Associate
Lily Grace Walls – Costume Designer
Rachel Hoovler – Piano
Alexis Medina – Guitar
Russell Elkus – Bass
Derek Briones – Drums
Zach Dries – Photographer

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