Goodman's 'Life After' a beautifully composed, brilliantly sung examination of love, loss
"Life After" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
Early in "Life After," the eloquent chamber musical about a teenage girl confronting the sudden death of her father, 16-year-old Alice, her older sister and mother brace themselves -- in the wake of a family tragedy -- for the onslaught of sympathy and well-wishes from friends and acquaintances.
Clutching each other, the trio take a collective breath before turning to face mourners. But it's not just mourners they confront, it's their future as a family minus one of its members. Brief, but telling, it is one of many recognizable moments in this beautifully composed, deeply resonant musical by Canadian composer/lyricist/writer Britta Johnson that opened Wednesday at Goodman Theatre.
"Life After" is an exquisite show with a lyrical, impressionistic score that recalls Stephen Sondheim's sophistication, as well as his wit. Discerningly staged by Annie Tippe, it's an emotionally satisfying work that convincingly depicts loss and grief (as evidenced by the audience's hitched breaths and teary eyes).
While the story is not autobiographical, Johnson, who was 13 when her father died, says she drew from her experience to tell Alice's "coming-of-age-through-grief" tale.
We first encounter Alice (a star turn from the charming Samantha Williams) on her birthday, checking her cellphone messages. One is from her father Frank (the affable Paul Alexander Nolan, who possesses a soaring tenor)-- a motivational speaker and successful self-help author -- referencing a fight earlier that day and seeking to make amends. He ends saying, "what a horrible way to say goodbye."
That proves prophetic when Alice learns from her mom Beth (the honey-voiced Bryonha Marie Parham) and older sister Kate (Skyler Volpe) that Frank died in a car accident. Guilt-ridden, Alice navigates her grief, searching for answers to the tragedy and learning how to live with it.
Alice's favorite teacher Ms. Hopkins (Jene Sese) and best friend Hannah (Lucy Panush) offer emotional support. While the Furies -- the ideally matched trio of Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lauryn Hobbs and Chelsea Williams performing Johnson's gorgeous harmonies -- bedevil Alice, raising doubts about the circumstances of Frank's death. That is when they're not playing buffet-obsessed mourners and other secondary characters.
The nearly sung-through show is brilliantly sung by a cast made up almost entirely of Broadway veterans. (This production would make an ideal means of their return if a savvy producer were so inclined). Lynne Shankel's arrangements and orchestrations are lush and bold. The septet, conducted by Chris Kong, is first-rate.
Equal to her composing skills is Johnson's ability as a lyricist/writer to capture in delicate detail the grieving process: frustration, humor, regret, sorrow that cannot be stanched and resolve to move on, which the superb Parham conveys in "Wallpaper," a towering cris de coeur from a widow determined to endure. Equally affecting is the penultimate duet between daughter and father, an unforgettable testament to grief and forgiveness, love and life after.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through July 17. Also, 2 p.m. June 30, July 7, 14 and 17. No 7:30 p.m. show July 3
Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Nearby garages, discounted parking with Goodman Theatre validation at the Government Center Self Park on the southeast corner of Clark and Lake streets
Rating: For teens and older
COVID-19 precautions: Masking required