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theatre review

From left: Ellen Denny, Trish Lindström, Tracy Michailidis, Rielle Braid, Kelsey Verzotti, Barbara Fulton, Neema Bickersteth, Anika Johnson, Dan Chameroy in Life After.Michael Cooper

A sudden death, a mysterious voice mail, a swirl of teenage grief, Life After by composer/lyricist Britta Johnson is getting a note-perfect premiere that is also a milestone for musical theatre production in Toronto.

Never has a new musical by a young talent received such substantial support in this city – the combined resources of three co-producers (Canadian Stage, the Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals); a committed cast that includes Ellen Denny, Dan Chameroy and Tracy Michailidis giving career-high performances as a 16-year-old and her late father and living mother; and inventive but assured direction from Robert McQueen complemented by a luscious sound from musical director Reza Jacobs fronting a six-piece band.

While Toronto theatres have an illustrious history of developing and backing playwrights and plays, they have, typically, had less to offer Canadian musical theatre creators and their much more expensive creations. The most successful working in this genre have generally had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, often at the Fringe, and then, if they're really lucky, wait for an American producer to come along and help them to a production this professional and polished.

But all the details that make a musical really sing are here – from top-notch orchestrations and arrangements by New York-based Lynne Shankel; to expert acoustical design by Peter McBoyle that makes the often problematic industrial space of the Berkeley Street Theatre sound as if were built for Broadway.

The musical itself announces the arrival of a notable talent in Britta Johnson.

Life After begins with Alice (Denny) going over the final, unanswered voice mail that her father, Frank (the chameleon-like Chameroy), a motivational speaker, left her shortly before he died on her 16th birthday. The two had had a fight about his work schedule – and he wanted to make up. "What a horrible way to say goodbye," he says, in a phrase that loops through the evening.

What's eating Alice is that her father said that he was getting on a plane at 8 p.m., but got into the car crash that killed him that evening in a nearby town at 8:22. Had he ditched his flight to come find his daughter? Was he headed somewhere else?

Alice investigates as the whirls and lulls of death go on around her. Her mother Beth (Tracy Michaildis) obsesses over the wallpaper she always hated in Frank's office, while her vegan sister Kate (a very funny, but heartfelt Rielle Braid) directs her anger at women who keep bringing meat dishes to their house.

Johnson's most creative musical invention is a comic three-person chorus (played by Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, Anika Johnson) who play these not-so-helpful neighbours and various other types of people who seem gravitate toward and almost feed off grief. They are armed with easy answers – many culled from Frank's self-help books and seminars – and worm their way into Alice's mind.

Most of Life After seems to live there, in Alice's gulf of grief – each scene at home or school suddenly invaded by her memories or guilt or theories about Frank's death. Songs attack other songs, musical lines or lyrics niggling like negative thoughts you keep thinking you've expunged.

Structurally, Johnson's show is impressive in its complexity – without ever being difficult to follow. The best sequence comes when Alice goes to see her beloved English teacher, Ms Hopkins (Trish Lindstrom) – and discovers that she has not only read her father's book, but is a fan. This is a surprise to Alice as she thought her father's followers were flaky – and she begins to reassess his reassuring words.

One of Frank's live seminars materializes on stage – and suddenly mantras about bruises and healing that sounded comically cliché earlier return and are sung with stirring conviction. But that lasts only a moment until Alice's sister and mother appear at this imagined seminar to ask questions of Frank – and the boilerplate from his book starts to sound hollow once more, but tragically so now.

This is all very artfully done, phrases dancing off music and showing different meanings and colours from one moment to the next – at its best, operating on a Stephen Sondheim level of sophistication.

That Johnson is steeped in that particularly musical auteur is clear, perhaps at times too clear, in her musical palette – and most of all in the equivocal character of Frank, who you're never quite sure was peddling platitudes or truly trying to inspire. "Everybody's got the right to make mistakes / everybody's got the right to tell a lie," he sings in Alice's imagining (and a lyrical nod at Assassins). "Everybody's got the right to get in a car and die."

In subject matter, however, Life After ultimately is most like kitchen-sink musicals such as Next to Normal or Dear Evan Hansen, Broadway shows that have shrunk the musical form to chronicle personal tragedies in middle-class homes (and which also include characters singing from the afterlife).

I appreciated Johnson's show more than those hits, in a way, because it seems to recognize its own narrowness and avoids too much bourgeois bombast. It helps that McQueen keeps the proceedings intimate – and, at one point, lets silence communicate grief in a way as affecting as any of the songs.

The only true flaw in Life After is that Johnson paints herself into a narrative corner. The action and activity of her detective work done, Alice is confronted by her naked grief – and we realize that, as is often the case in shows by young, still developing talent that grow out of an autobiographical impulse, our heroine has remained a bit of a blur compared to the sharply drawn secondary characters.

Alice stands there and tries to tell us what she has learned, or hasn't – and we settle into a succession of songs that sound like the composer trying to find her a way to end without resorting to a dramatic twist or settling on too pat a message. There's real integrity in that artistic struggle – even if ultimately it could all be summed up in a single lyric of Johnson's: "Losing is confusing."

Life After (canadianstage.com) continues to Oct 22.

A new Toronto exhibit featuring art, artifacts and props belonging to Guillermo del Toro promises to offer a door into the filmmaker’s mind. The Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit “At Home with Monsters” opens Friday.

The Canadian Press