Life is quite confusing for Elizabeth Vaughan, the thirtysomething divorced city planner at the heart of “If/Then,” the seductive musical by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/book-writer Brian Yorkey that opened Tuesday at the Orpheum in Minneapolis.

Moving back to New York after a decade of exile in Phoenix, Elizabeth (Jackie Burns) is torn over how to restart her career as three men jockey for her affection — her oldest friend Lucas (Anthony Rapp); an Army doctor, Josh (Matthew Hydzik), whom she meets randomly in a park; or her old schoolmate Stephen (Daren A. Herbert), a government official who may become her boss — and perhaps her lover, though he is married with kids.

Adding to the confusion, some friends call her Liz, others Beth — a key to the way the show’s twin plots will unfold.

Questions of chance, serendipity and luck animate this hip musical from the opening number, “What If?,” which offers her two potential paths forward. An offer is made to Elizabeth — if she says “yes,” her professional career will flower. “No” will aim her toward a new love.

From that point, the musical plays out her life in two parallel tracks, as Liz/Beth juggles a series of choices. While this novel strategy is cleverly crafted, with winning performances from all the principals, it also leads to a sense of drift. The show fails to produce any dramatic tension. Rather, it’s based on a series of unknowns that Elizabeth expresses perfectly when she sings, “What if I fall off the cliff?/ Will I ever just learn how to live and not wonder what if?”

It’s an age-old philosophical query that recalls Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler.” In this case, however, Elizabeth does just that.

Composer Tom Kitt and librettist Brian Yorkey crafted a lovely song that seems like a direct response to that poem. In “Some Other Me,” Elizabeth and Lucas imagine alternate versions of their lives: “Some other me/ Is homeless/ Some other me/ Is queen/ Some other me has seen things that no other me has seen.”

A terrific singer with great chops and charisma, Burns acquits herself well in a role originated by Idina Menzel. Broadway and film veteran Rapp (“Rent”) also is flawless as Lucas, playing his activist character’s idealism and passion with range. And Charissa Bertels, who subbed for “American Idol” star Tamyra Gray on opening night, brought power to the role of lesbian friend Kate.

The cast delivers Michael Greif’s polished production with passion and verve, selling a show whose energy dissipates in wistfulness.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

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