Britta Johnson’s LIFE AFTER is a deeply moving and creative new musical that beautifully probes the complexities of grief and the accompanying anxiety and unanswered questions it brings in its wake. This is a profoundly emotional, but also at times surprisingly humorous, musical that sonically takes inspiration from contemporary shows that came before it but has a personality all its own. Under the direction of Annie Tippe, Goodman Theatre’s ensemble brings the story of 16-year-old Alice, who mourns the sudden loss of her father, to life in a visceral and touching production.
Johnson’s theatrical devices for LIFE AFTER are particularly inspiring. She introduces three Furies into the material, who function as a Greek chorus inside Alice’s head as she contemplates her life in the wake of this tragedy. Johnson’s songs for the Furies and the other characters also magnificently capture the many layers to grief and its intertwining with anxiety. I am extremely fortunate to not yet have suffered a loss as great as the one Alice experiences in the show, but I found the portrayal of her anxiety and her circling of “What if?” questions highly, highly relatable. The number “Control What You Can” represents this energy so precisely, as Alice grapples with her anxiety over whether she’s to blame for her father’s death after he’s in an accident the night after they have an argument. By contrast, Alice’s father himself was a motivational speaker who specifically encouraged people to control what they can and let go of what they cannot. It’s a really beautiful layer that Johnson builds into the piece: Alice’s father Frank spent his career trying to provide Alice and others with the very tools to survive what she’s now experiencing.
On the whole, LIFE AFTER is profoundly moving and Johnson uses the songs to develop characters and bring out all the emotions that they feel in a way that’s wholly representative of the power of musical theater as a storytelling form. The Goodman’s cast members further elevate the material; the vocals are dynamite, complex, and refined, but the emotions are altogether real. Samantha Williams is a revelation as Alice; she has a beautiful singing voice, and she plays the role of exasperated teenager and grieving daughter in equal parts. Williams gives Alice just the right level of teenage angst in necessary moments, but she also wonderfully follows the character arc as Alice contemplates her grief and experiences growth over the show. Paul Alexander Nolan is an entertaining and profound presence as Alice’s father, Frank; Nolan brings out all the character’s charisma but also has a groundedness to his performance that makes Frank’s absence in his family’s lives all the more acute. Skyler Volpe is great as Alice’s older sister Kate, who wants to comfort her sibling but also find space to grieve in her own way. Bryonha Marie Parham is an incredible vocalist and hits all the right emotional notes as Alice’s mother Beth. Lucy Panush infuses some much needed humor as Alice’s goofy and loving best friend Hannah (She also delivers on some of the most whimsical parts of Ann Yee’s choroegrapy. Jen Sese is lovely as Alice’s debate teacher Ms. Hopkins, who tries to find ways to reach out to her grieving student. Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lauryn Hobbs, and Chelsea Williams round out the cast as the Furies; they’re deliciously in sync, punctuating key moments in the show and also providing some levity amidst the immense sadness in LIFE AFTER.
The production elements work in harmony with the poignant emotions on display in LIFE AFTER. Todd Rosenthal delivers a marvelous, detailed set with lifelike moving parts that seamlessly shift from one scene to the other—his designs for Frank’s office in particular play a pivotal role in the show as the space transforms. Sarafina Bush’s costume designs provide the necessary realistic touches and give a sense of each character’s personality. Yi Zhao’s lighting design works well to mirror the emotions, both big and small, in different moments of the show; particularly the choice to have a simple spotlight just on Alice in certain scenes in contrast with more brightly lit ones works well to center the character’s emotional journey. Joanna Lynne Staub’s sound design, Lynne Shankel’s arrangements, and Chris Kong’s music direction make sure that all the audio elements of LIFE AFTER work well together.
LIFE AFTER is a stunning and original new musical that left me fully emotional. Johnson has given us a truly unique, raw, and gorgeous show, and the Goodman’s production fully does the material justice.
LIFE AFTER plays in the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through July 17, 2022. Tickets are $25-$80. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/LifeAfter.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com