PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 29-April 4: If/Then Opens and Raisin Receives Glowing Reviews

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04 Apr 2014

Idina Menzel
Idina Menzel
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

John Travolta's favorite tongue-twister, Idina Menzel, made her long-in-coming return to Broadway this week, when If/Then, the new musical by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which officially bowed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. 

Though the world at large may know Menzel as the voice behind "Let It Go" from "Frozen" — now the most successful animated film in history — theatregoers still think of her as the original Elphaba in Wicked, a role she won a Tony for a full decade ago.

In the new show, Menzel plays a woman who journeys down two possible roads to self discovery. Michael Greif, Menzel's old Rent helmsman, directed the production. To make it even more of a family reunion, Anthony Rapp is a member of the cast.

Critics were mighty glad to have Menzel back on the midtown boards. But their praise was often a double-edged sword, for it often came paired with a knock on the show itself.

"As advertised, If/Then unfolds at the crossroad of 'choice and chance,'" wrote the Daily News. "Problem is, that intersection is around the corner from banality and been-there-heard-this-before. If Menzel wasn't around with her big belt and mellow warmth, there would be no reason to visit at all." The New York Post seconded that thought, saying, "If/Then would be DOA without Idina Menzel. The star holds this ambitious but unwieldy show together. Actually, she does more than that: She gathers a bunch of messy parts, and gives them life, emerging triumphant in the process." And AP added: "A show with so much potential is marred by poor editing. So, the overall answer is, if you really, really need to see and hear Menzel, then go and watch an actress wonderfully giving it her all."

Others however, liked both the show and the star, and voiced that opinion in strong terms. "We are meant to feel a bit off-balance, a little disoriented, maybe even confused in parts of If/Then — and that's the sharp point," state Newsday. "In this intelligent, surprising, altogether original new musical, the main character is a 39-year-old divorced woman, Elizabeth, who returns to New York after 12 years as a wife in Phoenix. This is a fork-in-the-road show, a back-to-the-future entertainment in which we briefly see the consequences of different roads taken... Greif's gleaming, inventive production has lots of moving parts, including double-decker sets by Mark Wendland that add more levels with a mirror that adds layers of ceiling and sky. Disorienting? Indeed, but in attractive, unpredictable ways."

New York Magazine also approved and, as did a few other reviews, gave Greif a lot of credit. "You absolutely never know what is going to happen, right up to the last, surprisingly moving beat," said the weekly. "You appreciate its addressing the central dilemma of career vs. family in a very direct way and then, quietly but completely, undermining it in the end. That it does all this while also looking as beautiful, and moving as smoothly, as any modern show could, with superior performances from top to bottom from a gorgeously multi-everything cast, are just some of the signs that the director Michael Greif is offering his finest work to date."

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Also opening this week was that hero of the Broadway box office, Denzel Washington, in the latest incarnation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which officially opened April 3 at the Barrymore Theatre, where the original production of the play opened 55 years ago.

Washington is that rare Broadway star who has the potential to light both the reservation lines and the critics on fires. His last visit to the Street, Fences, was both a box-office and critical hit. So far, in previews, Raisin is already a sellout attraction.

Denzel Washington
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
The reviewers' positive reaction should help nudge the production into the latter category as well. "The show that opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is blistering, beautifully acted and superbly touching," declared AP. "Director Kenny Leon gets a second bite of the apple... and offers a throbbing, vibrant production that is a match for this 55-year-old American masterpiece. There's real humor here, too, both physical and scripted. Washington is startlingly good as Walter Lee Younger, the frustrated chauffeur and dreamer. He has the cadences and the trapped physicality in his bones — warm and loose until he's cold and volatile."

The Times, too, was impressed. "Mr. Washington's more laid-back approach has a persuasive emotional logic, and it adds a different kind of suspense to Raisin. As the play tells its familiar story of the Youngers' attempts to leave the South Side for the suburbs, with the life insurance money left by Lena's husband, we're less worried that Walter is going to erupt into violence than sink into stasis, dragging his family down with him." Added Wall Street Journal: "All that's visible is the finished product, a piece of storytelling as plain and true and beautiful as a well-laid brick wall." Nearly every other critic found the production balanced, vital and well-acted across the board.

The issue of Washington's advanced age was brought up in a number of reviews, but no one seemed to care much. Said AP: "The script says Washington is supposed to be 35 — the actor is 59 — but all that matters is a brilliant performance, funny and poignant."

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Washington, DC's Arena Stage offered a significant opening this week, when Lawrence Wright's historical drama Camp David officially opened April 3 after previews that began March 21. Directed by artistic director Molly Smith, the production stars Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter and Egyptian actor and activist Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat.

The play depicts the events surrounding the 1978 Camp David Accords that led to a historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel which still stands today.

The Carters are the only characters depicted in the play who are still alive, and they attended the opening. Following the curtain call, the former President received more ovations than the actors.

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Heathers stars Barrett Wilbert Weed and Ryan McCartan
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Off-Broadway, Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy's new show Heathers: The Musical, based on the cult 1988 comedy about the fatal price of popularity at one high school, opened March 31 at New World Stages to a pile of positive notices.

The New York Times called it a "rowdy, guilty pleasure." The Daily News said the show "is such a fun and satisfying Off-Broadway treat, you might be tempted to express amazement by quoting the show. Such as, 'How very.'" Variety, meanwhile, enthused: "The witty Off Broadway show, penned by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, plays strong to a multi-generational [audience] ranging from digitized 20-year-olds to their parents and grands of the Gen X era, reaching all the way back to their Boomer forebears. Someone of the current generation should shake a leg and transfer this winner to Broadway."

Unlike the movie, which did not succeed commercially, this Heathers looks to have a healthy future ahead of it.

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Studio Theatre of Washington, D.C., will not, in the end, present Taylor Mac's play Hir as part of its upcoming season, as was previously announced.

Mac's play, in which a character adopts a third gender identity, was scheduled to be part of the Washington DC-based theatre's 2ndStage program. It had previously been mounted in San Francisco at the Magic Theatre, directed by Niegel Smith, and the Washington Post reports that Mac had wanted Smith to also direct the Studio Theatre production.

However, Studio artistic director David Muse — in a move common at nonprofit theaters, where all-powerful artistic heads like to reserve to themselves the choice of play directors — chose another director, Holly Twyford, to pilot Hir. Mac didn't like that. So, in an unusual move, he pulled the play.

"They announced it before talking to me," Mac told the Post. "Niegel has been working on this play with me for the last two years. We just still feel that the play and our process with it have some more work to do." Mac said his decision was not related to Twyford's directorial skills.

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Stage-shy music icon Carole King finally came to see the show about her life.

King surprised the cast of Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical during the April 3 curtain call at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. King, who watched the show from the audience, took the stage following the evening performance. She also performed her hit "You've Got a Friend" with the company.

King had previously stated she would not attend the musical, which chronicles her rise to stardom and much of the personal-life turmoil that accompanied it.

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Elle McLemore, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alice Lee and Barrett Wilbert Weed
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN