BWW Review: IF/THEN at Gryphon Theatre
We've all spent time wondering about the little 'what ifs' - how would our lives be changed, if we had made our decisions a little differently? The musical If/Then, by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, explores one woman's fascination with the road not taken. Boasting a small but mighty cast, the Wellington Footlights society bring this intimate tale to the New Zealand stage for the first time.
If/Then drops us smack-bang into the heart of New York City, where the freshly divorced Elizabeth (Cassandra Tse) has just moved for a new start. In Madison Park, Elizabeth runs into her new friend, Kate (Caitlin Penrose), and old college flame, Lucas (Michael Stebbings). Both of them give Elizabeth advice on how to start out her new life - Kate suggests plunging into new experiences under a fresh nickname, Liz, whilst Lucas suggests joining him in a rally like they did in the old days, under the nickname Beth. Here, the show splits, and we see the two different paths of Elizabeth's life play out.
The bread and butter of the story is Elizabeth. The character is rendered in a superbly whole fashion by Cassandra Tse. Whether she is playing Liz or Beth, the role demands Tse's near constant presence onstage and an ability to jump between timelines with fluidity, which she achieves with ease. Tse demonstrates her strong acting talent by honing in on Elizabeth's need for control and rigidity, which serve to make her moments of vulnerability all the more satisfying. When we do get glimpses of Elizabeth's more complicated inner world, such as in 'I Hate You', Tse's effortless vocal performance delivers both quivering vulnerability and intense power. Ultimately, the result is a character who makes for a satisfyingly real and relatable female lead.
Supporting Tse is a principal cast who similarly do an excellent job of navigating the narrative and emotional shifts required as the action jumps between timelines. A particular highlight was Caitlin Penrose's Kate, who combines honeyed vocals with a bolshy and confident performance to really own her stage time. Musically, the entire cast holds their own, though the rallying women's number 'No More Wasted Time' was a particular favourite.
With two timelines, there's huge potential for the plot to become messy and the audience to get lost as to whether we're in Liz or Beth's story. Knowing the basic premise of the show without researching the full plot, I was apprehensive about how much work I would need to put into following along. I wasn't wrong to be a touch concerned - the show sprawls across New York, the city both reflecting Elizabeth's freedom and becoming a character in itself.
Thankfully, the Footlights production manages to evade this confusion entirely. Director Ellie Stewart has clearly focused on ensuring the story is told with clarity, which is evident in a number of her directorial choices. The most obvious of these has Liz wearing glasses, while Beth does not, which provides an instant anchor. This small difference alone could still keep audiences flailing, so Stewart brings in set pieces and props (set onstage by a helpful ensemble) to help keep us on track with where we are and who we're dealing with, whether that's a crowded subway carriage or Elizabeth's apartment.
While the use of set pieces does help remind us where we are in a show that spans a dozen different locations, the clarity comes at a cost. Not all the transitions are swift and seamless, with the odd set piece not quite making it offstage before the next scene starts. I had the impression that the amount of stagehanding required from the ensemble actors on occasion made it difficult for them to get onstage for their next entrance.
As well as orchestrating much of the lifting and shifting, the blocking and characterisation of the ensemble helped give body and vibrancy to the cities many locations. You can't doubt you're in a New York City park when a performer has rolled out a yoga mat upstage, or a couple is breaking up on a nearby park bench. Capturing this feeling of life and energy is a necessary move when telling a story about a passionate New York urban planner like Elizabeth (which is explored with charm in the number 'A Map of New York').
In moments such as 'A Map of New York' the staging shone, as the use of the ensemble supported the shows need to capture the busy energy of the city. At other times, the ensemble as set-dressing route became a touch distracting, such as in the scenes set in Elizabeth's office. While I could understand the desire to make the most of the lengthy Gryphon stage (reconfigured for the show), it lessens the quiet intimacy that makes If/Then a powerful and touching work.
And, at the end of the day, while the singing and dancing is both fun and well executed, If/Then sells me on it's deeply personal storytelling. The show is thoughtful and stuffed with feeling, whilst still leaving room for the odd chuckle. Despite its length, the pace flows along nicely and my time in the theatre felt much shorter. If/Then represents another sure-fire success for Wellington Footlights.
You can book tickets to the marvellous If/Then here.