If Theatre & Company are not very, very careful they are going to get a reputation as star makers. IF/THEN, the company’s first production for 2019, brings Sydney theatre-goers another stunning female lead in Jocelyn O’Brien. O’Brien has an impressive resume but bursts bright as a bona-fide star in this production where her energy, voice and subtle characterization helm a show which necessarily falls, or in this case soars, on the strength of the lead.
The show tells the story of Elizabeth, whose what/if splits her into Beth and into Liz in a moment of decision and indecision. A divorce has brought Elizabeth, an urban planner, back to NYC and as she meets friends in the park, her one life becomes two … as separate as apartments yet, in both universes, her relationships are as complex as a squatters collective.
IF/ THEN famously starred Idina Menzel on Broadway but O’Brien shakes off any Menzel brashness from the first line. It’s a gentle creation she gives the audience, there’s a softness and temperate power in her character. Liz and Beth don’t shy away from being abrasive but the audience is brought to the heart of a woman who can change and grow in different worlds.
O’Brien is as charismatic when listening as she is when belting. She’s as brave in her choices as she can be when down in the warmth of her rich alto range. Then she is pitch perfect bitch with glorious top notes. Her characterisation gives a real sense of “working the problem” and her voice is breathtakingly good from beginning to end. That penultimate big note after 3 hours of non-stop performance deservedly brought the house down.
And O’Brien has a full complement of interesting and enjoyable people to share the stage with. Rob Thompson is a Josh, a doctor a soldier, and he is well matched with O’Brien. He copes wryly with Liz’s more expressive repressions and is stolidly her champion in a compassionate and worldly way. There’s a terrific rapport between the two and the first kiss is romantic enough for an audience’s out loud ooooo. He does a great job of the more spoken aspects of music and his ‘You Never Know’ is quixotic and sweet in the face of her cranky intractability.
Lucas, who appears in both Liz and Beth’s lives, is played by Levi Burrows and his work shows an adept textual understanding as he becomes slightly different men in each of the two universes. His scenes with David (Michael McPhee) have modern day practicalities and an odd romance with a evident and entertaining likeability from each. Burrows has a very engaging voice too and his ‘You Don’t Have To Love Me’ is one of the highlights of the show. The two men also seem to have an infectiously great time in ‘Best Worst Mistake’.
Poor Stephen, though, Beth’s boss. He is stuck. Like a monument on the map he is unable to move despite his passions. Dave Collins is very noble in this role and his singing is a delight. He does such an empathetic job of wearing his heart on his sleeve and being charmingly comic in his dry way. Also bringing a very good comic character with superior singing is Ariane Sallis as Beth’s kooky friend Kate. Sallis can hold the audience in thrall as she sits downstage for storytime and break their heart with the big decision she will make against Beth’s advice.
Sallis’ equal in a more understated role is Ashli Marin as Anne who really breaks out in ‘Love While You Can’ with a lovely voice and a genuine and emotional rendering. And these pair have a very satisfying vocal blend. Rounding out the principal characters is a Tayla Jarrett as Elena, Beth’s workmate. Jarrett also brings depth of creation and beautiful vocal style to her character and wisdom to the friendship. ‘No More Wasted Time’ has the four women in a thoroughly delicious quartet which pulses with female energy.
Director Adam Haynes obviously has brought his considerable experience to successfully guiding his cast through both the vocal and emotional topography of the show but he has also excelled in the presentation of the narrative of IF/THEN. The show has book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, received two Tony nominations and was a hit with audiences, if not with critics who found it a bit too convoluted. This production is a different building, there are clean, distinct lines and Haynes has polished his cast to a glass walled shine.
Every action in the many transitions is smooth and extremely well-rehearsed and there is an occasional, cleverly placed freeze frame at the end of a scene to hold the mood. Plus the ensemble have an eye for detail in the placement of props and set pieces. The execution of the transitions is reflected also in the choreography from Melissa Ayers which focusses in on placement. It has to be said there are some tentative dancers so the use of travel rather than complicated steps gives the production a drive and dynamism that still energises.
Zara Stanton’s excellent musical direction was somewhat hampered on Opening Night by an audio operation which needs more concentrated effort. Those single instrument introductions are effective, though, and the use of the drum in a song like ‘Map of New York’ really grounds the vocal interpretation while the piano in ‘Hey Kid’ adds an intricacy to the sung storytelling. There is a pleasing complexity to the arrangements, particularly in the way the guitar is used and in the suppression of the strings to avoid overt manipulation of mood.
Unfortunately the band were sometimes miscued, O’Brien did very well to cope with the hasty beginning to ‘What the Fuck’. Mics were opened and closed with less than stellar accuracy and the mix had all sorts of issues. Smaller companies like this have limited production time in the venue before opening and I am sure it will be de-bugged by the time you see the show. Lighting-wise the production tends to travel rather than fade in and out which works commendably to make the show less episodic. It also works very well to focus in attention on the smaller, more intimate scenes. Again opening night operation was still finding its feet.
Costuming suitably identifies and delineates the characters with an apparent ease of use for some fast changes, one of which, for Josh, drew a gasp of appreciation from the house and there is a satisfying detail in the choice of jewellery. As Theatre & Company take their work forward there is an increased sense of attention to detail to everything in this show. It might still display some am-roots and some scenes, especially the death notice, are lacking in the crispness which is needed for the intended gut-punch but generally there is very little to distract from complete immersion in Liz and Beth’s alternative existences.
Gather all your alternative selves, because no one should miss it, and get to Parramatta because IF/THEN’s season is short and fate, and Theatre & Company, are giving us the chance to have a thoroughly agreeable night at the theatre in the presence of a quality production and a luminous star.