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The conundrum of chance

Team behind hit ‘Normal’ returns with pre-Broadway D.C. debut

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Idina Menzel, James Snyder, If/Then, gay news, theater, Washington Blade

 

Idina Menzel, James Snyder, If/Then, gay news, theater, Washington Blade

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in ‘If/Then.’ LGBT issues percolate in two sub-plots in the new musical. (Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy National Theatre)

‘If/Then’
Through Dec. 8
National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
800-514-3849

Do you ever wonder to what extent chance rules your destiny?

The new musical “If/Then” starring Broadway megastar Idina Menzel as a woman on the precipice of a new life does. Not just how chance affects the individual, but also how the ripple effect of our lives impacts in significant and small ways the fate of those around us.

The neatly titled but rather rambling  “If/Then” (currently premiering at the National Theatre before  moving on to Broadway) centers on Elizabeth (Menzel), an urban planner in her late 30s. We meet her at a pivotal time — after 10 years mired in an unhappy marriage and professional doldrums in Phoenix, Elizabeth returns solo to New York, her city, eager to get her life right. From here, the musical cuts back and forth between two narratives, both possible realities for our heroine. As “Beth,” she concentrates almost solely on her career; but as “Liz,” she makes love and family more of a priority. Though very different, neither of these paths is particularly less traveled, nor are they immune from hardship.

Even though Brian Yorkey’s book with its sometimes confusing parallel stories is cleverly conceived and keeps the audience on its collective toes, the show unfolds unevenly — the plodding first act is followed by a brisker, high drama second. Its most notable achievement however, is the fleshed out character of likable Elizabeth. As the data-obsessed but down-to- earth PhD, Menzel, who famously created the parts of Maureen, the wild bisexual performance artist in “Rent,” and, of course “Wicked’s” green-faced witch Elphaba, gets to show off her considerable acting  chops.

“If/Then” reunites Tom Kitt (music) and Yorkey (book and lyrics) and director Michael Greif (the team behind the commercial/critical hit musical “Next to Normal”). It also brings together a truly stellar, pitch-perfect diverse cast to portray Elizabeth’s friends and love interests including handsome James Snyder as Josh, a low-key Nebraska born ER doctor and army reservist. Anthony Rapp plays Lucas, an intense affordable housing activist who earns his living as a barista and is bisexual. Tony Award-winning LaChanze’s Kate is an innovative, upbeat kindergarten teacher and Liz’s biggest cheerleader. And Kate’s roving-eyed partner Anne is beautifully underplayed by Jenn Colella, who identifies as gay offstage too. Jerry Dixon is Stephen, Beth’s unhappily married boss.

The action takes place in Madison Square Park and other Manhattan locales. The cost of housing and the banishment of lower income residents from the city’s increasingly exclusive ranks is a recurring topic. Mark Wendland’s striking two-tiered set boasts leafy trees and fire escapes. It lightly suggests parks and smoothly morphs into work and living spaces. At one point, we see Elizabeth speaks to us from her tiny, cramped bathroom. We see her from the vantage point of peering through the other side of the mirror above the sink.

Clocking in at almost three hours, the show covers a lot: the relevance of chance, career, family, New York City and marriage. (There are two subplots involving same-sex marriages!) One of the “If/Then’s” quieter moments is Menzel’s wistful delivery of “Walking By a Wedding” just after intermission. Later in the second, Menzel belts it out with the crowd-pleasing power ballad “Always Starting Over,” displaying her voice and range to full advantage.  It’s in this song that our Liz hashes out her choices and comes to grips with the concept that every day is a new opportunity to begin. It’s a stirring theatrical moment and makes up for the musical’s flashes of sitcom-ish humor and occasionally awkward staging.

Today’s musical fairy tale isn’t happily ever after. It’s more fall in love even when the odds strongly favor failure. If it works out, great. If not, at least you tried. For a woman like Elizabeth who worships at the altar of numbers and doesn’t believe in accidents, letting go isn’t easy. “If/Then” advises giving it a shot.

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Out & About

LGBTQ+ Theater Festival returns for Black Pride

African American Collective Theater hosts ‘What That Mouth Do . . .’

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Washington’s African American Collective Theater (ACT) will host “What That Mouth Do…,” the latest installment of a program that has become an annual spring tradition in Washington, D.C., starting on Sunday, May 26 at 4:30 p.m. at Undercroft Theater. 

Guests will get to witness more than 25 talented, local “ACT’ers” – some familiar faces, some new – present Readers Theater-type performances of short LGBTQ+ themed plays. Audiences can choose either show or attend one, break for dinner, then rejoin for the other.

Additional information and tickets are available at a-act.org.

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Calendar

Calendar: May 24-30

LGBTQ events in the days to come

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Friday, May 24

Center Aging Monthly Luncheon with Yoga will be at 12:00p.m. at the Reeves Center at the D.C. LGBTQ Community Center. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults! Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of choice. For more information, email [email protected]

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Happy Hour” at 7:00p.m. at DIK Bar. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including Allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Trans Support Group will be at 7:00p.m. on Zoom. This group is intended to provide emotionally and physically safe space for trans* people and those who may be questioning their gender identity/expression to join together in community and learn from one another. For more details, email [email protected]

Women in their Twenties and Thirties will be at 8:00p.m. on Zoom. This is a social discussion group for queer women in the Washington, D.C. area. For more details, join WiTT’s closed Facebook group.

Saturday, May 25

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Brunch” at 11:00.am. at Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including Allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

Black Trans Pride Forever will be at 2:00p.m. at the Westin Washington. This will be  an afternoon filled with celebration, empowerment, and community. This event is a safe space for all Black Trans individuals to unite, share their stories, and support one another. From workshops to performances, there will be something for everyone to enjoy. For more details, visit Eventbrite

Sunday, May 26

Go Gay DC will host “LGBTQ+ Dinner” at 6:00p.m. at Federico Ristorante Italino. This fun weekly event brings the DMV area LGBTQ+ community, including Allies, together for delicious food and conversation. Attendance is free and more details are available on Eventbrite.

AfroCode DC will be at 4:00p.m. at Decades DC. This event will be an experience of non-stop music, dancing, and good vibes and a crossover of genres and a fusion of cultures. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased on Eventbrite

Monday, May 27

Center Aging: Monday Coffee & Conversation will be at 10:00a.m. on Zoom. This is a social hour for older LGBTQ+ adults. Guests are encouraged to bring a beverage of their choice. For more details, email [email protected]

“TRANSEND: Transgender & Nonbinary Support Group” will be at 4:00p.m. at the Pride Center of Maryland. This event will be a safe space to discuss hot topics, education and incentives while enjoying food. This event is free and more details are available on Eventbrite

Tuesday, May 28

Pride on the Patio Events will host “LGBTQ Social Mixer” at 5:30p.m. at Showroom. Dress is casual, fancy, or comfortable. Guests are encouraged to bring their most authentic self to chat, laugh, and get a little crazy. Admission is free and more details are on Eventbrite.

Queer Book Club will be at 6:30p.m. on Zoom. This month’s read is “Immaculate Misconception: A Story of Biology and Belonging” by Gwen Bas. For more details, email [email protected]

Wednesday, May 29

Job Club will be at 6:00p.m. on Zoom. This is a weekly job support program to help job entrants and seekers, including the long-term unemployed, improve self-confidence, motivation, resilience and productivity for effective job searches and networking — allowing participants to move away from being merely “applicants” toward being “candidates.” For more information, email [email protected] or visit www.thedccenter.org/careers.

Genderqueer DC will be at 7:00p.m. on Zoom. This support group is for people who identify outside of the gender binary, whether you’re bigender, agender, genderfluid, or just know that you’re not 100% cis. For more details, www.genderqueerdc.org or Facebook!

Thursday, May 30

The DC Center’s Fresh Produce Program will be held all day at the DC Center for the LGBT Community. To be more fair with who is receiving boxes, the program is moving to a lottery system. People will be informed on Wednesday at 5:00 pm if they are picked to receive a produce box. No proof of residency or income is required. For more information, email [email protected] or call 202-682-2245. 

Virtual Yoga with Charles M. will be at 7:00p.m. on Zoom. This is a free weekly class focusing on yoga, breathwork, and meditation. For more details, visit the DC Center for the LGBT Community’s website.

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Television

‘The Voice’ crowns first LGBTQ winner

Asher HaVon is from Selma, Ala.

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Asher HaVon (‘The Voice’ screenshot)

So, the LGBTQ pundits and culture watchers were … wrong. Or at the very least, anticipating “history” way before its time. After frustration over “American Idol”’s inability to crown an LGBTQ winner, they held high hopes for a new competing star-making vehicle, “The Voice.”

In 2011, the Advocate burst with excitement saying “There’s no need to wait on NBC’s new vocal competition, The Voice. The show boasts four gay contestants — two men and two women — heading into the battle round, where they will be coached by the likes of Blake Shelton, Cee Lo, Christina Aguilera, and Adam Levine. And while a couple of them might be eliminated in the next few weeks (in the battle round, teams of eight are whittled down to four when teammates face each other in a sing-off), chances that there will be a lesbian or gay singer competing to become the first ‘Voice’ are strong.”

Well. Not so strong. All of the LGBTQ contenders were eliminated. As were others over the years that even included a young trans man singing with his father as one of the show’s few duet contestants. “American Idol” did end up crowning an LGBTQ winner in its 18th season.

That was then … and this is now. After 25 seasons, “The Voice” has crowned Asher HaVon its winner. It is no wonder, as Asher’s vocal tone is hypnotic, rich, and blows through your auditory senses. Listening to him hit certain notes in his vocal runs can bring you to a flood of emotional tears. At least, it did for me.

It did for coach Reba McIntire as well. 

The significance of Asher HaVon’s win goes beyond just a queer identity. It is adorned with a depth of representation and visibility. When Asher stepped on stage, he brought culture, diversity, history, and identity. 

Like many incredible vocalists, he comes from a church foundation. Reba McEntire was a wise coach choice, relating to a broad reach of American sensibilities. She is one of the rare entertainers who is beloved by fans across the broad political spectrum. She is traditional, but an ally. 

In a bit of irony, there is a segment of his hometown that still are keeping his LGBTQ status in the closet. The Selma Times-Journal brags about his “historic win,” but when they write about it, they are referring to the fact that he is the first winner from Alabama. They do not mention his LGBTQ identity at all.

Not sure how they could miss it. Asher presents in full-beat makeup with gorgeous nails to diva quality eye makeup and lashes. His costuming was never anything less than fabulous. His song choices placed him in a pantheon of LGBTQ-worshipped goddesses that included Adele, Beyonce, Whiney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, Tina Turner, and Donna Summer. He was not only courageous to take on their groundbreaking hits, but did so with the talent to impress with his own versions of them.

As Asher stands on stage, he also represents a proud black man living in the spirit of America’s civil rights movement. He truly does represent Selma, Ala., and its fight for equality significance is part of his DNA and his history. In 2015, when President Barack Obama visited the city, Asher sang for him in front of a crowd of 200,000 at the famed Selma Bridge crossing.

While the significance of that event is not lost on him, Asher calls it one that he “will never forget”, he tells the Montgomery Advertiser that “The Voice” “is different because it is the Asher HaVon that most people never got a chance to see. I am free. I am walking in the authenticity of who I am, while sharing my gift. That means so much more to me than any other experience than I’ve ever had in life.”

While Asher carried his legacy, the history he represented, and his authenticity into every performance he gave over the show’s run, it was his pure talent that put him on top.  It was so impressive that it even broke through the show’s premise of four celebrity coaches battling it out for a win. Under that guise, each of the coaches pleads with America to vote for their protégés.

Asher had most of them pleading for him instead. He initially received three “chair turns” at the outset where Chance the Rapper, Dan and Shay, and Reba were the celebrities campaigning for him to pick them. John Legend was the hold-out. Asher, ever the diva connoisseur, had already picked Reba in his mind and would have picked her no matter what anyone else had said.

Legend, later in the season, shared that he received a phone call from his dad who declared not only that he was rooting for Asher, but that Asher was “THE” voice of the season. Both Legend and Chance declared Asher to be “the best vocalist on the show” several times in their feedback statements.

While Asher’s win and authenticity should bring a source of joy to LGBTQ fans, it also is a big boost for his coach and main champion, Reba McEntire. While the show has put a full-throttle on Reba as the “queen of country” and showered her with adoration, she has had some difficulty in wowing many of the auditioning singers onto her team. Asher represents a significant win for her, as well as her being also the coach for first runner-up Josh Sanders, when she starts the next season against Gwen Stefani, Michael Bubble, and Snoop Dogg. The latter two are newcomers and Stefani boasts only one previous win years ago, but a loss in her one previous match-up against McEntire.

For the future Voice contestants, Reba has some serious creds to play. 

For the rest of us, in the LGBTQ community, in the dance clubs, and in the hearts of ones needing a new diva to love, Asher has arrived.

Asher HaVon and Coach Reba perform Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s ‘On My Own’ during ‘The Voice’ finale.

******************************************************************************************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including The Los Angeles Blade, The Washington Blade, Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] 

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