It’s not often that the small musical form can be transformed into something that’s truly a game-changer. It happened in the 1950s with “The Fantastics,” in the 1970s with “Godspell” and more recently with “Come from Away” which went on to win its share of Tony Awards. So I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say that “Life After,” the new musical production was written by the outrageously talented Britta Johnson and masterfully directed by the Globe’s own Barry Edelstein, has a similarly excellent chance at duplicating that success. The show was developed in Canada, where it won several Dora Mavor Moore Awards including Outstanding New Musical and Outstanding Production of the 2017-2018 season.
“Life After” has an achingly beautiful score that borrows heavily from the intricate lyricism and plaintive tone of the best of Stephen Sondheim. It really is a beautiful piece of theatre that will surprise you with its gut-punch of emotion. You should go see it at any cost before it wends its way to Broadway.
The story revolves around 16-year-old Alice (a wonderfully-layered Sophie Hearn) who loses Frank, her pop psychologist author father, in a tragic car accident on the night of her birthday. She’d made plans to be with her friends instead of her Dad that night (hello, she’s a teenager!) and the two have an atypical fight only hours before the accident. And with the usual self-absorption of a teen, Alice thinks that everything that happened that night is her fault.
The show moves in and out of Alice’s head, which is buzzing with memories and projections both real and imagined. She’s too immersed in her sorrow to realize that also dealing with their own grief is her mother, Beth (a poignant turn by Mamie Parris ) who had put her own career aside to support her husband and raise two kids, and elder daughter Kate (the wonderfully wry Charlotte Maltby) who always felt second best in Daddy’s eyes. They want to just move on, but Alice can’t – her guilt is anchoring her to the past. She can’t move on until she figures out why it had to happen. This all sounds relatively heavy, but the musical is alternately funny, touching and genuinely dazzling.
The excellent, multi-purpose scenic design by Neil Patel is minimalist with spot-on projection design by Sven Ortel that perfectly suits the tone of the show. The lighting design of Tony-winner Japhy Weideman and sound design of Ken Travis really function as almost separate characters, expressing the inner life of the players. Costumes by Linda Cho and choreography by Ann Yee, in particular for The Furies (a three-woman Greek chorus who represent reality), are a perfect complement to the dreamy, sliding set pieces made from transparent fabric that allows the audience to peer into the dream world of the teenage psyche.
Kudos go to all performers – especially the oh-so-endearing Livvy Marcus as Alice’s nerdy BFF Hannah and Dan’Yelle Williamson as her favorite teacher Ms. Hopkins, who has a deeper connection to Alice than anyone realizes. Her solo “Moving” is a highlight. As the self-absorbed author Frank, Bradley Dean’s soaring tenor voice brings tension and pathos to his duet “Snow” with Alice, the eleven o’clock number that hits you in the heart. The Furies, who play a multitude of roles, are done to perfection by Ximone Rose, Mackenzie Warren, and Charlotte Mary Wen.
The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, but it moves along in a steady rhythm, never dragging. The orchestrations by Lynne Shankel and the excellent orchestra conducted by Chris Kong, are subtle yet powerful. Author Britta Johnson wrote both the libretto and the score and her equally talented sister Anika Johnson serves as dramaturg on this story that has some basis in their own lives.
Some of the images will stay with you long after such as the final, spectacular picture with Alice surrounded by pulsating, falling snowflakes, is an apt metaphor for the entire production. In the midst of great pain and emotional growth, there are moments of perfect beauty that make the whole damn thing worth it. As the lights dim, one feels joy and hope, not something you would expect from a musical that’s about love and loss.
“Life After” runs until April 28 at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, part of the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at the Old Globe in San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park. For tickets and information on parking, contact www.TheOldGlobe.org or call 619-23-GLOBE.