Shows That Make You Ask: What If and WTF?
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Shows That Make You Ask: What If and WTF?

The New York musical If/Then and the German comedy Das Ding provoke speculation, laughs, and disappointment.

Tamyra Gray, left, Jackie Burns, centre, and Anthony Rapp star in the touring Broadway musical If/Then at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tamyra Gray, left, Jackie Burns, centre, and Anthony Rapp star in the touring Broadway musical If/Then at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West)
Runs to May 8
Tickets: $35 – $130
2 5stars

Das Ding (The Thing)
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs to May 1
Tickets: $24 – $53

What if? What if Rent author Jonathan Larson hadn’t died prematurely in 1996 and had gone on to write a sequel? And if so, would it be anything like If/Then, the touring Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey musical currently at the Princess of Wales Theatre?

If/Then isn’t, strictly speaking, a Rent: Part II, but it goes out of its way to invite comparisons. And not just because it was directed by Michael Greif, Rent‘s original director, and stars original Rent cast member Anthony Rapp (and, in its 2014 Broadway production, also starred Rent alumna Idina Menzel). Where Larson’s musical dealt with people in their twenties, squatting in New York’s East Village, Kitt and Yorkey’s concerns people in their late thirties, trying to combat New York’s low-income housing shortage. In fact, Rapp’s If/Then character, the aging activist Lucas, is also a squatter—albeit in Bushwick.

Just one thing, though: Rent felt vital and of-the-moment when it premiered in 1996. If/Then feels like it might have been exciting about 10 years ago. As it is, its nods to racial and sexual diversity seem like just that—you can almost hear the boxes being checked off—and its New York jokes (e.g. trying to get a laugh by referring to how Brooklyn has become unexpectedly trendy) sound so last decade.

The plot, meanwhile, is a more sophisticated variation on that ’90s Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors. If/Then‘s central character, Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), newly divorced and back in New York City to make a fresh start, finds herself in Madison Square Park facing a seemingly minor decision that will turn out to be momentous: go to a protest with her old friend Lucas, or hang in the park with her new friend Kate (Tamyra Gray)?

The show then bifurcates to follow the consequences of each decision. Going with Lucas ultimately leads to Elizabeth’s landing her dream job as a city planner. Staying with Kate means she’ll meet the man of her dreams, the army medic Josh (Matthew Hydzik). Her decisions also have an impact on her friends: in one scenario, the covertly gay Lucas remains single and writes an influential book, while in the other he meets the man of his dreams, a surgeon named David (Marc Delacruz). The outcomes of two relationships—Kate’s with her partner Anne (Janine DiVita) and that of Elizabeth’s boss, Stephen (Toronto fave Daren A. Herbert), with his wife Cathy (Deedee Magno Hall)—are affected as well.

Jackie Burns and Daren A. Herbert play city planners with secret feelings for each other in  If/Then. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jackie Burns and Daren A. Herbert play city planners with secret feelings for each other in If/Then. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There’s palpable excitement in the early scenes, not least because this is Kitt and Yorkey’s follow-up to Next to Normal, their witty, moving, and inspired musical about mental illness. We’re ready for a bracing, brainy show and the first stirring songs—”What If?,” “A Map of New York”—seem to promise that, as they ponder the effect of choices both on our personal lives and on our physical world.

Alas, If/Then never fulfills that potential. The contrasting parallel stories become equally trite, while a sameness creeps into Kitt’s score—and into the lead performance of Burns. She has a powerful voice—as we noted when she played Elphaba in the touring Wicked several years back—but there’s little colour or nuance to her dual role. Now and again, she’s amusing—notably in the funniest number, “What the Fuck?,” which would’ve been a great song for Tina Fey’s romantically muddled Liz Lemon on 30 Rock (again—this show is so last decade). But it’s easy to lose interest in her.

So, too, the one-note characters of Lucas and Kate, who deliver a double dose of that old standby, the gay best friend. Rapp’s neurotic Lucas in his two iterations is almost identical—you never believe for a second that he’s been transported by his love for Delacruz’s easy-going David. They have a solitary onstage kiss that’s so quick and perfunctory, it looks as if the show is embarrassed about it (or anticipating some kind of homophobic backlash). Gray’s ever-upbeat Kate (a kindergarten teacher, of course) gets one token downbeat scene, when she discovers Anne has been unfaithful, which is meant to show how much Kate loves her. But Yorkey (who wrote the musical’s book) cheapens it by using her distress as a plot trick—at first we’re made to think Kate is upset about a plane crash.

Greif has given the production a vibrantly kinetic staging, enhanced by Mark Wendland’s two-level, turntable set, which can as easily morph into a subway car as a rooftop garden, and by the many map-themed projections of Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully. If only all this Broadway slickness were being expended on a richer piece of musical theatre. Disgruntled fans of Next to Normal will end up asking themselves the same question as If/Then‘s heroine: WTF?

The cast of Canadian Stage and Theatre Smash's Das Ding (The Thing) in their shared role as the "Thing" of the title. Photo by James Heaslip.

The cast of Canadian Stage and Theatre Smash’s Das Ding (The Thing) in their shared role as the “Thing” of the title. Photo by James Heaslip.

What if? What if filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu had made his intense, everyone-is-connected drama Babel in the same witty, fantastical spirit as his 2015 Oscar winner Birdman? Would it have looked anything like Das Ding, the German comedy by Philipp Löhle now on at Canadian Stage?

Das Ding, or The Thing, is a fast, funny spin on the global interconnection theme, with the “Thing” in question being a humble boll of cotton that begins life in Africa, makes its way to China, where it and its fellow fibres become an exported T-shirt, which in turn…but why reveal its further adventures? Let’s just say that, in one form or another, this bouncing boll links the lives of an unhappily married couple, a reluctantly famous photographer, an African farmer, two Chinese entrepreneurs, and a French-Canadian aid worker. Although most of them are linked in other ways as well, and there’s enough coincidence in Löhle’s 2011 play to power the plot of a 19th-century novel.

But if its theme and jigsaw-puzzle structure are familiar, Das Ding is still a diverting piece of theatre, especially as presented by Theatre Smash and its rising-star director Ashlie Corcoran (Durango, The Ugly One). The show rolls swiftly from scene to scene, with an engaging, energetic cast—Kristopher Bowman, Lisa Karen Cox, Qasim Khan, Philip Nozuka, and Naomi Wright—playing various roles as well as giving life to the Thing itself. And that Thing, strikingly designed by Drew Facey, is the production’s imposing centrepiece: an enormous hollow sphere, wrapped in white like some Christo art project, which later doffs its draperies to reveal a skeletal interior where the actors can play.

Löhle’s script has been translated and Canadianized by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, but even so it may be surprising for audiences accustomed to thinking of German theatre as dark and edgy. True, there are some dark strands running through it—a tragic accident, a shooting, a troubled exhibitionist who masturbates on the internet—but the show’s overall tone is as light as—ahem—cotton.