By Jean Lowerison
It’s a pain, having a famous father who seems never to be home when you need him. In Britta Johnson’s new musical “Life After,” 16-year-old Alice Carter (Sophie Hearn) has a psychically bruising argument with dad Frank (Bradley Dean), accusing him of valuing his job as a motivational speaker over that of being her father. Angry words are exchanged on both sides.
Frank calls her later to make amends, but Alice does not call him back. The next thing Alice gets is a call from mom Beth (Mamie Parris), “You should come home. Something has happened.”
Frank has been in a fatal car crash, and now Alice blames herself. “Life After” is her voyage of discovery to find out what really happened.
Helping (and sometimes confusing) her in the endeavor are elder sister Kate (Charlotte Maltby) and best friend Hannah (Livvy Marcus), along with Alice’s English teacher Ms. Hopkins (Dan’yelle Williamson).
A heavy topic for a musical? You betcha. Johnson, a new face on the theater scene from Stratford, Ontario, has written book, music and lyrics for “Life After,” now in its American premiere at the Old Globe Theatre. The Globe’s artistic chief Barry Edelstein directs.
In this show, Johnson explores topics of grief, loss, guilt and the inevitable messiness of life with a clever, intelligent and moving book and a score that is of the next generation: reminiscent of Sondheim (Johnson reports that she was fascinated as a child by “Into the Woods”) with fast lyrics and a pop undergirding. This show even has a mythological aspect: three shape-shifters called Furies, who serve as a sort of Greek chorus.
The script jumps around between now, then and Alice’s fantasies – the physical changes accomplished visually with movable fabric panels (by Neil Patel) and Japhy Weideman’s lighting. Some of the fabric has also been used in costumes by designer Linda Cho, and by Sven Ortel for projections. It’s all very clever and economical – and best of all, it works.
Japhy Weideman’s lighting maintains the almost other-worldly aspects of the plot, as does Ken Travis’ sound design.
And with a terrific cast of engaging characters, the intriguing music and human problems we can all identify with, “Life After” is a winning show.
Hearn nails Alice’s roller-coaster emotional ride from hurt to guilt to confusion and final acceptance (when she learns to do what Frank suggests in the song “Control What You Can”) in a terrifically nuanced performance. She’ll break your heart with her final song, “Poetry.”
Parris’ Beth wants to help the suffering Alice, but she has her own problems to deal with – including her new identity as the “wife of a famous dead man.” She takes out her frustration in the song “Wallpaper,” in which she paints over the wallpaper she’s always hated in Frank’s office.
Maltby’s Kate tries to convince her sister that she’s not responsible for Frank’s death, but it’s a hard sell, and the best she can do is be there.
Marcus is excellent as Alice’s only friend Hannah. These two girls are not members of the school “in group,” shown amusingly in a scene in which Hannah goes to a reportedly “open” party of the popular kids.
Dean’s Frank is excellent as Alice’s dad, and especially amusing in a scene where he does his thing as a motivational speaker, advising followers to “Forgive Yourself.”
Kudos also to music director Chris Kong and his fine five-member band, who do justice to Johnson’s fine score.
Playwright Britta Johnson is a bright new Canadian face (she’s from Stratford, Ontario) on the theater scene. She began writing “Life After” at the age of 18. I look forward to many more fine plays from her.
“Poetry” Video available here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWHB3aZGQcg
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.