Burns helps ‘If/Then’ overcome its shortcomings

A scene from the national tour of "If/Then." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jackie Burns, center, and the ensemble in a scene from the national tour of “If/Then.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

BOSTON – What would our lives look like if, at a key juncture, we went off in another direction than the one we actually chose?

The team that created the musical “Next To Normal,” which won three Tonys and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama, looked at that premise through the eyes of a thirty-something Manhattan woman and came up with the musical “If/Then,” with the national touring production now at the Boston Opera House through July 17.

For both musicals, Tom Kitt wrote the music, Brian Yorkey the book and lyrics and Michael Greif directed, and while “If/Then” isn’t quite up to the high bar they set with “Next to Normal,” a strong performance in the lead role makes it the best it can be.

It’s probably no coincidence that Jackie Burns, who stars as Elizabeth in the national touring production of “If/Then” now at the Boston Opera House, replaced Idina Menzel as Elphaba in “Wicked” and understudied her as Elizabeth in “If/Then” on Broadway.

The role requires a voice big enough to carry a cadre of soaring pop ballads as well as strtength and stamina and Burns, who earned an IRNE nomination for her performance in the national tour of “Wicked,” has it all in spades.

Yorkey has crafted an intense, passionare if at times muddled look at a woman moving through two parallel lives. The premise is interesting if not completly original: in a 1998 movie called “Sliding Doors,” Gwynesth Paltrow starred as a London woman’s whose love life and career both hinged, unbeknownst to her, on whether or not she caught a train.

In this case, “If/Then” is the story of one woman’s dual paths: the choice to pursue a career at the expense of a husband and family, or becoming a wife and mother and putting career on a back burner.

After her marriage dies after 12 years in the desert, thirty-something city planner Elizabeth returns from Phoenix to NYC ready for a fresh start in Manhattan.

Elizabeth becomes two people: eyeglass-wearing Liz (the wife and mother) and Beth, the career woman who wears no glasses. To help us find our way if we don’t pick up on the glasses, there are changing-color set backgrounds — red for one story line, blue for the other.

Her twin voyages begin on the same day at the same place: Madison Square Park. Elizabeth gets a call from Stephen (Jacques C. Smith), a former college friend who is now a powerful New York City official, who offers her a job in the city’s planning office.

The second path begins on that same day when she doesn’t take that call, and instead meets Matthew Hydzik’s Josh, an Army doctor home after a tour whose chance encounter with Liz sets her life on a course of becoming a wife and mother

If/Then” also explores the notion that the decisions made by Liz or Beth affects other in orbit around her, and their lives are changed dramatically by the paths she takes.

That would also include Tamyra Gray as Kate, a feisty lesbian kindergarten teacher who both bonds with Liz and takes up with flashy girlfriend Anne (Janine DaVita).

And, yes, “Rent-heads,” that is indeed Anthony Rapp, the original Mark Cohen of “Rent,” as Lucas, Liz/Beth’s self-proclaimed “oldest friend,” sometimes lover, and housing activist, a part he also played on Broadway, where he reunited with Menzel, another “Rent” original.

And while the score has its moments, the biggest problem with the songs is that they all pretty much fit into the same genre – soaring pop/rock ballads that are all set around the show’s central theme, and they become almost indistinguishable.

There are a few that stand out: “Here I Go,” sung by Liz and Josh,and the “11 o’clock” song, Liz’s “Always Starting Over.”

There are bumps and bruises in store for both Beth and Liz, unfortunately. There isn’t anything that happens to Liz that we can’t see coming in some form or fashion, but heck, Burns has such stage presence and, of course, the voice to make whatever she happens to be singing at the time sound pretty darn good, even if it happens to sound a lot like that thing she sang a little while back.

Greif’s direction helps Burns well define her dual roles, but after her no other character really steps to the fore with the exceptuion of former “American Idol” contestant Gray’s Kate.

Mark Wendland’s versatile, colorful, playful set dovetails well with Kenneth Posner’s lighting, Brian Ronan’s sound design and the projections of Peter Nigrin and Dan Scully to replicate the sights, sounds and feel of Manhattan, if a somewhat stylized and scrubbed clean version of the burrough, without too many homeless folk and the nasty diversions of Times Square.

Burns makes “If/Then” worth seeing even if you lose track of who’s on first, and start to wonder if you’re watching the wife and mother or the career woman.

The national touring production of “If/Then.” Music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Grief. At the Boston Opera House through July 17. broadway.boston.com.

Anthony Rapp and Jackie Burns in a scene from "If/Then." Photo: Joan Marcus

Anthony Rapp and Jackie Burns in a scene from “If/Then.” Photo: Joan Marcus