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DECISIONS THAT STICK: Starlight production features local actress who made it big

By Paul Horsley

Once we’ve made tough life-choices, we either learn to live with them or experience the toxic effects of regret. Still, it’s only human to wonder sometimes what might have happened if we’d taken that “other path.”

One of the most daringly experimental pieces of theater in recent Broadway history, If/Then is a musical that explores two possible paths of a woman’s life: broadly speaking, one path toward love and family and the other toward a “big career.” A sudden split in the narrative generates two completely different stories that play out simultaneously. The principal character, Elizabeth, becomes “Liz” in one story and “Beth” in the other.

Janine DiVita / Photo courtesy Starlight Theatre
Janine DiVita / Photo courtesy Starlight Theatre

Overland Park native Janine DiVita, who plays Anne in the official touring production of If/Then that opens July 26th at Starlight Theatre, finds resonance in the play: She’s had several points in her life where a critical decision had big consequences. When she graduated from the University of Michigan’s celebrated musical theater department, for example, she moved straight to New York, sleeping on friends’ sofas and subletting before finally finding an apartment in Queens.

“It was one of the proudest achievements of my life, to just say: I’m doing it. That took guts. … All I knew of New York was the Broadway shows that I sang songs from, and “Saturday Night Live.” I had never even been to New York.” But Janine quickly found her way to an off-Broadway production (The Day Before Spring) and soon she was on Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Grease and other works.

Janine DiVita and Tamyra Gray in If/When / Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy of Starlight Theatre
Janine DiVita and Tamyra Gray / Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy of Starlight Theatre

We don’t always get what we think we want, though, and sometimes rejections can be just as important as successes, Janine said. She had in fact auditioned for the lead role of Liz/Beth for the original production (a role she covers for this tour, in addition to playing Anne), and though she was passed over for Idina Menzel, Janine had caught the attention of the producers and especially director Michael Greif.

“Yes I was disappointed, but looking back on it, in the two-year period between the Broadway production and the tour I was able to travel the world as a vocalist and did several shows, including a workshop with Michael Greif.”

So when the time came for If/Then to tour she already had an “in”: Meanwhile she had not only become a better artist, but she’d also met the man she is about to marry, a New Yorker who works in the financial sector. “That’s kind of what this show is about: about chance and destiny and things happening for a reason. Had I gotten that role then, I wouldn’t have been able to do all those things. … You never know why something is happening the way it is, but you just have to trust in … whoever is in charge of the grand scheme of things.”

Janine gives huge credit to her upbringing in Kansas City for the person she is today. “I was really shy,” she said of herself as a youngster, “and I guess in a way, kind of insecure. But I knew I loved to sing.” The daughter of two attorneys, she performed shows at Saint Thomas Aquinas H.S., sang in the choir at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, and performed for Theatre in the Park and other groups. (More recently, in 2013 she earned accolades in Starlight’s Spamalot!)

She credits teachers who built both her artistry and her self-esteem: Shirley Marley and Brian McGinness at Miller Marley School, vocal teacher David Yoss, and Cary Danielson Pandzik of the company now called Musical Theatre Kansas City.

Kyra Faith, Janine DiVita, Tamyra Gray and Jackie Burns / Photo by Joan Marcus
Kyra Faith, Janine DiVita, Tamyra Gray and Jackie Burns / Photo by Joan Marcus

But Janine also credits the experience of growing up in the Midwest, which taught her about honesty and work ethic. “People take pride in doing a good job, and it’s not really about impressing people. … There’s a level of integrity, and that shows in the work we do and the way we treat other people.” Relationships are important in a Broadway career, she added. “Of course you have to have the talents and skills to get to a certain level: But to stay at that level, it’s about how you treat other people, and how you approach project with respect.”

If/Then is by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and is directed by Michael Greif; it’s the same team that created the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Next to Normal.

New York Magazine called it the Best Musical of the Year in 2014: “In its formal daring, and in the intelligence of its execution, If/Then moves into new territory with intense and thrilling results.” Idina Menzel, who drew raves in the lead role on Broadway, performed in the first part of the tour, and Janine (as her cover) got to step in several times for her. (Janine also covers the lead role for Jackie Burns, who replaced Idina on the tour in January of this year.)

“It’s intimidating going on for Idina Menzel, because a lot of people are coming to the show specifically to see her,” Janine said. “But the audiences were so welcoming and supportive. You do feel this pressure to win them over. … But Elizabeth is such an interesting character that … as long as you bring authenticity to the role and lead with your heart, the audience is going to root for you.”

KC Independent Joyce web

If/Then runs from July 26th through the 31st at Starlight Theatre. Call 816-363-7827 or go to kcstarlight.com.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

 

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