A&E | Northwest Herald

Review: ‘Life After’ a musical grief support group

Lauryn Hobbs (from left), Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lucy Panush, Chelsea Williams and Samantha Williams star in Britta Johnson’s "Life After," a musical playing at Goodman Theatre.

When my mom passed away in 1994, my dad called me at work. I wasn’t at my desk. Instead of just telling me to call him back, he left a message with the horrible news, and asked that I not call him until the next day because of all the arrangements he needed to make. I wanted so much to phone right away, but I respected his wishes and waited, mourning the loss of my mom with the support of my wife and brothers, but not dad. I wanted to just talk.

I was reminded of this after seeing how “Life After,” a musical with its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre, begins with phone messages being retrieved by 16-year-old Alice Carter (Samantha Williams). The first is from her father, Frank (Paul Alexander Nolan), a fairly successful self-help author. He wants her to call him; he feels awful about an argument the two had earlier that day – Alice’s birthday. Frank wants to talk before his 8 p.m. flight.

Paul Alexander Nolan and Samantha Williams in the Goodman Theatre musical "Life After."

Before Alice can call her dad, she notices several other messages – one from her mother, Beth (Bryonha Marie Parham), saying,”You should come home; something just happened.” Another from Alice’s older sister Kate (Skyler Volpe) that reinforces the urgency (“Mom’s been trying to reach you; where are you?”); and one from Alice’s best friend Hannah (Lucy Panush) with birthday greetings.

The “something” that just happened was a car crash that took Frank’s life. Nowhere near the airport. At 8:22 that night, 22 minutes after his flight would have left. Why was Frank still around? Why was he in that part of town? Why did he miss his flight? Was he searching for Alice to have that conversation he’d left the message about? Is Frank’s death partly Alice’s fault?

Alice is beset by all of these thoughts, brought to musical life by a Greek chorus of sorts, the Furies (Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lauryn Hobbs and Chelsea Williams). Alice is grieving her father’s passing and the last words she’d said to him, but to get through the grief, she needs to know the truthful answers to all of those nagging questions.

Britta Johnson, the Canadian composer, lyricist and book writer for “Life After,” has audience members in the palm of her hand with this intriguing story that isn’t biographical but was inspired by her own grief as a teenager when her father died. While there were a number of laughs (among the numerous well-meaning calls and casseroles the Carters need to graciously accept, and Panush’s self-deprecating humor as Hannah), there were many so-quiet-you-could-hear-a-pin-drop moments, too.

Credit goes to the wide variety of original musical numbers, poignant interactions between characters, and the impressive performances of the entire cast of nine (including Jen Sese as Alice’s favorite teacher, Ms. Hopkins), under the direction of Annie Tippe.

I also applaud set designer Todd Rosenthal’s two-story set that includes a beautiful curving staircase between levels, as well as set pieces/backdrops that fly from either side of the stage, under the stage, or the rafters. The second floor even becomes a high school hallway with lockers in one quick transition. Sarafina Bush’s costumes are also noteworthy; with fast costume changes, those Furies become adults at a private memorial reception, carhops at a chicken drive-in restaurant, high school students and more, quickly communicating the change in characters through their outfits and mannerisms.

Presented without an intermission, the 95-minute musical isn’t just focused on Alice’s “life after” journey, either. We get to see the way Beth and Kate deal with their grief, as well, both even using some of Frank’s self-help info (“Control what you can and let go of the rest”) in a song aimed at Alice. It’s worth noting that Frank doesn’t just appear in the first scene and then die, never to be seen again until the bows; Nolan’s character is an active participant in Alice’s imagination and memory and in the recollections of his wife and older daughter.

I also have to say that one of my favorite scenes is one where Johnson inserts no dialogue or song lyrics for several minutes, but communicates volumes through the interactions of three key characters.

My only nitpicks with this production: the lyrics are sometimes too fast or overlap so much (multiple singers, different words) that it’s tough to catch everything, and that issue is even more of a concern when the nine-member orchestra conducted by Chris Kong is occasionally too loud for the singers to be heard easily.

Because life after the Goodman run of “Life After” isn’t certain, check it out now; when it goes to Broadway – as it deserves to – you’ll be able to say you thoroughly enjoyed “After” before. Unlike my phone message in 1994, this is a very good grief.

• Paul Lockwood is a singer, local theater actor, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, podcaster, columnist, and past president of TownSquare Players. He’s lived in Woodstock for more than 21 years.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Life After”

WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago

WHEN: Through July 17; masks required

INFORMATION: Tickets at 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org/LifeAfter