Theater Review: IF/THEN (Brown Paper Box Co.)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 27, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

John Greenleaf Whittier’s bittersweet couplet is echoed in If/Then, a 2014 chamber musical. This sprawling, 160-minute speculation of a show wonders whether there are any accidents in life. Is chance just “probabilities playing out”? Little that happens in life is ever as inevitable as fate. But that hint of freedom doesn’t save us from the regrets Whittier describes.

There’s a powerful puzzle working itself out in If/Then, an invigorating action contemplation in two acts by Tony- and Pulitzer-winning composer Tom Kitt and lyricist and bookwriter Brian Yorkey, creators of Next to Normal. Their Broadway show is now an engaging Chicago premiere by Brown Paper Box Co. at the Athenaeum Theatre’s Studio Three, its 12 performances beautifully directed by Elyse Dolan and its two dozen songs and four musicians impeccably shaped by Rachel Hoovler.

Much like It’s A Wonderful LifeGroundhog Day, and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” — imaginings to which this one is clearly in debt — If/Then examines paths picked or not and choices that create ripples that alter even more.

Not to be sucked into what would be in effect two exhausting synopses, If/Then (the title suggesting causation as much as alternative fates) focuses on the malleable life of Elizabeth (wonderful Amanda Giles), a 38-year-old city/housing planner. She’s come to New York City to build and protect buildings that shape lives — and it’s not unlike how Elizabeth herself is affected and altered by the people she meets, the living backdrop that makes every life a work in progress.

Two crucial influences on her evolving life are kindergarten teacher Kate (Bridget Adams-King) and architectural activist Lucas (Parker Guidry). The former, who prefers experience over resumé-building, suggests that Elizabeth call herself “Liz,” while the goal-oriented latter says she should revert to her college name of “Beth.”

From that bifurcation two destinies develop and diverge. Played simultaneously (which requires an attentive audience to multi-task, weighing one life trajectory against another), Beth or Liz embark on separate journeys. Strangers or bosses in one story become friends or lovers in the other, including two dynamically different gay couples.

You’d need a flow chart to trace Liz and Beth’s many turning points in this very schematic show. Then there are all the near hits and misses between and among significant others and tangential acquaintances. It’s no accident that set designer Jeremy Hollis surrounds these stories with open doorways. Here entrances and exits are everything.

If/Then delivers in spades life’s perpetual yins and yangs, ebbs and flows amid the seeming randomness of waterfront developments, plane turbulence, abortions, Mideast combat, unanswered phone calls, and stir-of-the-moment impulses that forge a future. There are no “do-overs” here, no more than in real life, just stops that could be starts, and souls that pass in the night.

Richly rendered, these probing songs, very reminiscent of Sondheim, honor the plots’ daunting complexities with their own rich reflections. These include a lovers’ duo, “Here I Go,” the hapless directive of “No More Wasted Time,” Elizabeth’s heart-rending “You Learn to Live Without,” the wishful thinking of the duet “Some Other Me,” an existential solo “What Would You Do?,” and an affirming trio “Love While You Can” — its message the point of all these parallel universes, which are about the maddening fluidity of life’s connections.

The ensemble, which also features Alanna Chavez, Darian J. Duah, Matthew Fayfer, Michael Idalski, Will Kazda, Micah Kronlokken, Jennifer Ledesma, Grace McDonell, and Michael Peters, are authentic in casting, acting and singing. These are no small triumphs given roles that revolve and reverse just as Elizabeth morphs into Liz and Beth, never the twain to meet.

Presenting alternatives that subvert, support and capture life and love in full flux—that’s what theater does best. It all happens on the third floor of a former Catholic school in Lakeview.

photos by Zach Dries

Brown Paper Box Co.
The Athenaeum, Studio Three
2936 N. Southport Ave.
ends on February 16, 2020
for tickets, call 773.935.6860
or visit Brown Paper Box

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick January 27, 2020 at 11:46 am

Thank you for the beautiful review.


Lawrence Bommer January 27, 2020 at 3:27 pm

My pleasure!


Laura Dembo January 28, 2020 at 6:48 pm

This review is spot on. The show is incredibly beautiful and so well served in such an intimate setting. I saw the show on Broadway and I think, this cast, this setting, this version, may be even better. Amanda was incredible as was the rest of the cast. I wish it was a longer run so more people could experience what we experienced Saturday night.


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