Britta Johnson's “Life After” was born as a song cycle years ago, when the Toronto-based playwright was an 18-year-old grappling with her father's death five years earlier — and it shows.
Though the musical has evolved through a world premiere with Toronto's Musical Stage Company and Canadian Stage in 2017 and an American debut at San Diego's The Old Globe in 2019, its main strength remains the way music is used to express the many stages and layers of grief. Johnson's score, with echoes of Stephen Sondheim, is lush, complex and often beautiful, and her lyrics range from humorous looks at funeral-goers' behavior to heartfelt cries of anguish at the unbearable loss.
Mostly sung-through, the 90-minute piece centers on 16-year-old Alice (Samantha Williams). Opening on her birthday, Alice has just had a fight with her mostly absent father Frank (Paul Alexander Nolan), a famous motivational author and speaker who travels the world leading conferences on “transformotion” and learning to forgive yourself. He's left her a telephone message saying how horrible he feels and asks if they can get together to talk before he leaves on an 8 p.m. flight.
Then, before Alice can blow out metaphorical birthday candles, she gets urgent messages from her mother Beth (Bryonha Parie Barham), her older sister Kate (Skyler Volpe) and her best friend Hannah (Lucy Panush) all telling her that something has happened. Three Furies (Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lauryn Hobbs, Chelsea Williams) also chime in, soon becoming irritating guests for a full-fledged opening number focusing equally on Frank's greatness and food. They also are Alice's inner voices and a variety of other characters.
It turns out that Frank was in a fatal car crash at 8:22 p.m., and the occasion for the musical number is his funeral. In one of the details that strikes a familiar chord, people come bearing casseroles, among them Alice's favorite teacher, Ms. Hopkins (Jen Sese).
Alice blames herself for her father's death because she didn't return his call. She believes that he was waiting for her and thus missed the 8 p.m. flight. But there's a mystery: He was nowhere near the airport or home when his car crashed.
Tormented by guilt but trying to follow the advice to “Control What You Can” (and let go of what you can't), Alice, a debate team aficionado, is determined to find out why Frank died where he did. Kate and Beth don't seem as affected by his death, at least until Beth's gut-wrenching song about redoing his study, simply called “Wallpaper.”
But here's the rub. The strength of “Life After” also is its weakness. In Goodman Theatre's production, directed by Annie Tippe with choreography by Ann Yee, the characters aren't fully developed enough to be very interesting, and there's not much of a plot. Sure, the stages of grief ring bells, but they are pretty generic. “Fun Home,” for example, deals with the dead father-daughter dynamic in a more compelling way.
The exception is Panush, who is bubbly, talkative and charming as Alice's best friend Hannah. Not surprisingly, the ensemble members all have very good singing voices, and Williams' Alice is especially captivating when she's quiet. Under music director, conductor and keyboardist Chris Kong, the small orchestra—all strings and percussion—is top notch.
Todd Rosenthal's multi level set is a masterpiece of versatility with moving parts that enable it to transform smoothly from funeral parlor to school room to snowy highway and back again. Yi Zhao's lighting highlights the shifting scenarios, sometimes putting Alice in a stark spotlight. Sarafina Bush's costumes reflect each character but don't do much more than that.
“Life After” has enough going for it musically to have a life after the Goodman Theatre, but the story and characters need to be more distinctive.
“Where We Belong”
Playwright, director and performer Madeline Sayet is a terrific storyteller. In her thoroughly engrossing, often gently humorous “Where We Belong” she recounts her physical and spiritual journey to study Shakespeare in England for her PhD, figure out who she is and learn how to honor her Indigenous Mohegan ancestry.
The 90-minute solo piece, which has evolved over time, premiered at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London in 2019, then was adapted for film in 2021 by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with Folger Shakespeare Library. Carefully directed by Mei Ann Teo, the live version is stopping at Goodman Theatre as part of a national tour.
Sayet is at her most riveting when she's at her most personal. Her anecdotes range from an amusing incident at the Swiss border, where the guard only asks how she voted on Brexit, leading her to reflect on the boundaries people draw, to a horrifying encounter at the British Museum with an official who is clueless about his country's colonialism and cultural genocide. He doesn't even think twice about the thousands of human remains that haven't been repatriated.
Named for the blackbird and the last fluent Native speaker of Mohegan, Sayet focuses much of her meditation on the significance of language. As a Shakespeare scholar, she even imagines Caliban in her favorite play, “The Tempest,” as an Indigenous island dweller who reclaims his language after the colonizers leave.
While she initially feared flying, Sayet poetically describes her life as many flights interrupted by perches—sometimes at home, which she sometimes struggles to define. At other times, she tries to heed the advice of her mother, a medicine woman, and the spirits of her ancestors, Indigenous men and women about whom most of us know little or nothing.
“Where We Belong” should inspire us to learn more about Sayet's people and the theater work she is doing in order to puncture stereotypes and promote understanding. I suspect that's her intent, and it certainly works for me.