I’ll keep this short – but it won’t be sweet.
The Goodman Theatre’s production of Toronto playwright Britta Johnson’s freshman musical Life After starts promisingly, with an absolutely spectacular set and a lively cast. But it soon becomes apparent that the show—which revolves around the grief experienced by Alice, (Samantha Williams), a 16-year-old girl dealing with the death of her mostly absent father—has a similar absence at the center of the production itself: namely, a compelling story.
The show says as much itself in its eleven o’clock number, “Snow.” The protagonist’s father, Frank (Paul Alexander Nolan), sings to her: “Don’t look for the story.” That may be good advice to a bewildered adolescent searching for reasons for her father’s death—but it’s a preciously thin thread to hang a whole musical on, even a spare 90+ minute one-act like this one.
Dead absent fathers and their struggling daughters have been musicalized before—most recently, and far more winningly, in the Tony Award-winning Fun Home. But where that production had Jean Tesori’s sweeping music, and Lisa Kron’s clever lyrics and compelling characters, Johnson’s Life After too often settles for jingly “moon, June” interior rhymes and character development that is talked about, but never shown.
In addition to Alice and her dad Frank, the show features Alice’s mom Beth (Bryonha Marie Parham) and sister Kate (Skyler Volpe)—both of whom seem oddly unaffected by Frank’s mysterious demise. Each of the characters eventually has the opportunity to express—and sing—their unique perspectives on grief. But their numbers have an almost formulaic quality that seems to simply check the musical boxes in lieu of genuine emotional clarity.
I do have praise for Lucy Panush, whose deft comic turn as best friend Hannah, delivers a warm, funny performance. But, mostly … unfortunately … the cast fails to transcend the run-of-the-mill material, despite follow spots and end-of-show softly falling theatrical snow.
I’ve had my own personal experience with the early loss of a father, and I know how devastating that can be. Playwright Johnson’s own loss when she was only 13 is nothing to be dismissed. Indeed, her early grief forms the impetus for the show—she began writing it in her teens.
I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend it.
Life After, directed by Annie Tippe, runs through July 17 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets ($25 – $80) for the 95-minute show are available at www.GoodmanTheatre.org/LifeAfter.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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