Life After is a poignant exploration of one family coming to terms with grief in the wake of tragedy. When her self-help guru father is killed in a car crash on her birthday, sixteen-year-old Alice’s life shifts. Plagued by questions about the circumstances of his sudden death, and by regret at the angry last words they ever exchanged, Alice searches for answers. This coming of age story coloured by loss is anchored by moving performances from a talented cast, and by a soaring, complicated score by young Canadian composer and lyricist Britta Johnson.
There are a lot of unique elements about this show, most notably the inclusion of a three-person Greek Chorus (played by Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, and Anika Johnson). The chorus voices Alice’s inner fears about her role in her father’s death, and play other minor parts, such as the kids at school drawn to tragedy, and fans of her father’s self-help books, who attend the funeral service. In a refreshing change from most musicals, the cast is overwhelmingly female (eight of the nine actors are women), although the lone male, Dan Chameroy as Alice’s deceased father Frank, casts a long shadow over the show.
I have also never seen a show use silence as well as Life After does. In the moments following a powerful climactic breakdown song (more on that later), you could have heard a pin drop.
Employing a naturalistic style in its dialogue and lyrics, Life After incorporates current speech trends. Lyrics such as, “she was just, like, around” and “you are a literal warrior”, set the show firmly in the present day. Lyrics often repeat, but never in a way that feels tired. In fact, for me, Life After accomplishes what a previous CanStage show, London Road, tried and failed to do, with lyrics that follow natural speech patterns and could just as easily be spoken as sung.
The soaring score, by composer and lyricist Britta Johnson, has been compared to Sondheim for its harmonic complexity. Like Sondheim, Johnson’s music makes demands of the actors who perform it, with songs that are quick-paced and emotionally taxing.
Seeing Life After on the weekend after my whirlwind trip to New England, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to the shows I had just seen. In its taut seventy-five minutes, Life After contains more heart and authenticity than I experienced in the entire two-and-a-half hours of the current US tour of Les Miserables. This production of Les Miserables suffers from miscast actors who often seem to be just going through the motions. Not so Life After, which had me teary-eyed by the end. You would expect an exploration of grief to feel almost manipulative, yet Life After never does. This is largely due to the anchoring presence of a cast who make you believe every word.
Ellen Denny is stunning as Alice, showcasing a sweet, strong voice and a powerful belt. One of the most passive heroines I’ve encountered, Alice spends the first half of the show observing and reflecting, paralyzed by grief and the fear that she bears responsibility for her father’s death. Yet Life After uses this to its advantage. The moments where Alice takes action and gains momentum as she begins to accept and move through her grief are all the more powerful for her earlier inactivity.
A much touted Toronto theatre scene actor who I’ve never had strong feelings about, Dan Chameroy is excellent here. His performance as Alice’s self-help guru father, Frank, is appropriately understated, comic and sweet by turns. His presence lingers, even when he’s not on stage, and Chameroy switches effortlessly between playing the always busy but well-intentioned father of Alice’s memories, and the more ambiguous creation her imagination comes up with as she searches for answers.
The highlight of the show is the mental breakdown of Alice’s mother Beth. In Tracy Michailidis’ rendition of “Wallpaper”, repressed emotion comes to the fore after an argument with her daughter over painting Frank’s office. Seeing the Huntingdon Theatre Company’s stunning production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in such close proximity, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between “Wallpaper” and Damian Humbley’s tour-de-force performance of patter song “Franklin Shepard Inc”. How I wish I could witness these two powerful breakdown songs back-to-back!
Musicals with serious themes often feel the need to include comic relief characters and/or songs (such as “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” in Les Miserables), often with cringe worthy results, but Life After integrates humour incredibly well. As someone with a sometimes exasperating preachy vegan friend, I probably enjoyed the running joke about sister Kate’s veganism more than the average theatre-goer, but Kate (Rielle Braid) isn’t reduced to a punchline, nor is Alice’s best friend Hannah (a believably teenage Kelsey Verzotti). Both characters provide humourous moments, but also enable Alice to make breakthroughs in her journey to acceptance.
Unfortunately the Berkeley Street Theatre continues to be a blight on the otherwise sunny development of new Canadian musicals. Its location near the downtown core and smaller size make this theatre a popular choice for independent shows, but the exposed brick walls swallow sound, making any musical with an open set difficult to hear. This is especially disappointing when the score is A) new, so you don’t know the lyrics already, and B) as quick and wordy as Life After is. I would love to see this show again in a space where the glorious score doesn’t come up against the obstacle of the Berkeley walls.
Life After is an excellent show, but there’s room to grow. Running a tidy seventy-five minutes with no intermission gives Britta Johnson room to expand on her engaging minor characters, such as sister Kate and mother Beth. I especially wanted more from Kate, who is explored purely as a peace making character in the musical, but has her own issues about Frank’s clear favoritism of Alice. Johnson likely wants to avoid unnecessarily bloating the musical, but I’d love a song or two more from their perspectives.
Life After also falters a little as it winds down, with the final few songs all sounding like they could serve as an ending. Still, this is a beautiful show about flawed people coping, in their own ways, with the death of another flawed, and utterly human, individual. The melodies stick with you, as does the emotional heft of this show, which I’m sure will have a life after the Berkeley Street Theatre.
Photo of Ellen Denny (Alice) by Michael Cooper.