LIFE AFTER, a new musical by composer and lyricist Britta Johnson is a beautiful and complex musical about the emotional growing pains that come with growing up. Playing at The Old Globe this is a show that should not be missed.
It opens on the sixteenth birthday of Alice (Sophie Hearn) when her father Frank (Bradley Dean), a popular author and motivational speaker makes a surprise visit home from his speaking engagements to celebrate Alice’s birthday. They get into a fight since she refuses to change her plans to spend the few hours he has in town with him. She deliberately ignores his call and he leaves a voicemail apologizing for the fight and saying “This is a terrible way to say goodbye” since he has to leave for his conference.
Alice’s phone soon starts ringing again only to find that it is her mother Beth (Mamie Parris) calling to say her father has died in a car accident and that Alice needs to come home.
As Alice tries to cope with his untimely death she finds herself fixated on the mystery of why her father was driving where he was well after his plane should have departed. Why did he miss his flight? Why was he on that stretch of road? Was he looking for her? Does this mean this is her fault?
This central mystery drives the plot and is told through flashbacks and memories switching between moments in the present tense, helping to blur the lines between what’s felt, what’s remembered, and what’s the truth. Alice obsessively tries to run through everything to figure out what happened to resolve her own feelings and get the reassurance of some semblance of control in this life. Meanwhile her mother and sister Kate (Charlotte Malthy) are also grieving and wishing Alice would connect with them as well.
As adoring public swarm the funeral, friends try to help, and family try together to engage Alice retreats further and tries harder to solve the mystery of her father’s death. Her theory’s swirl and she jam pieces of information together to try to make a narrative that fits.
The excellent cast keeps this mix of grief and laughter moving, allowing this show to have a truly remarkable feeling of lightness even with the subject matter.
Hearn’s Alice is a sympathetic but unreliable narrator, as she replays everything in her mind assigning new weights and meanings to things that may or may not have happened. Her delivery is heartfelt and emotional while retaining moments of the acerbic bite of a teenager.
Malthy’s Kate is delightful as the vegan, older sister who imparts both comedy and a little tough love to the narrative as she tries to get everyone else around her to remember her dietary preferences and giving Alice some needed perspective. Parris as Alice’s mother Beth has a powerful moment in “Wallpaper” as she processes grief through action.
Dean as the father Frank is winning as both the warm and goofy dad to his family to a platitude selling convention speaker to the public. The audience and Alice see his impact and demeanor as a speaker and author where his speaking theme is “Transformotion” and if that’s not a combination of goofy Dad jokes and self-help then what is?
Livvy Marcus is charming as Hannah, the awkward but comedic friend of Alice. Her moments bring moments of brightness that remind the audience and Alice that there life is continuing on outside of this obsession. Dan’yelle Williamson also provides a dose of lightheartedness as Alice’s supportive teacher Ms. Hopkins.
The shape shifting ensemble called the Furies (Ximone Rose, Mackenzie Warren, and Charlotte Mary Wen) seamlessly go from a mourning fan base, convention attendees, or (my favorite) high school classmates of Alice. The attention to detail to the nuances of their characters is what makes their quick character switches so believable.
Director Barry Edlestein keeps the emotions grounded and real even while the shows scenes and characters drift in and out of each other as Alice runs through everything in her imagination. This allows the reality to be heightened and is complimented by the gorgeous projections by Sven Ortel and lighting by Japhy Weideman that plays with light and focus. Scenic design by Neil Patel further plays with the feeling of permanence allowing everything to have that shifting, half blurred feeling when you are trying to find something at the edge of your memory. The final visual of the show is stunning and for the first time in the show, Alice and her surroundings are totally in focus.
The score is gorgeous; full of lush and complex strings and the audience is enveloped by the music of the orchestra led by Musical Director Chris Long. Ann Yee‘s choreography keeps everyone in motion as Alice’s mind continues to work in emotional overtime trying to sort everything out.
As much as this grapples with grief, and the sometimes painful growth spurts that come with becoming an adult, this show is beautifully articulate, funny, and light. Some mysteries are never truly resolved and as frustrating as that can be for a completionist it is a poignant reminder that control and a neat ending is as much an illusion as anything else in this life.
LIFE AFTER is a gorgeous piece of theatre that is emotionally resonant dealing with themes accessible to everyone; family relationships, love, grief, friendship, and the desire for answers while accepting that some things are truly unknown.