Caught Between Guilt and Grief
It’s a fear of mine. You are saying “See you later” to someone, and it’s not a proper goodbye. Then as they depart, you think, what if I don’t see them again, and I didn’t give them a hug?
This fear is just one small part of the intricate story that unfolds in Life After, an impressive 75 minute musical currently on stage at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre.
Alice is a high school student with plans for her 16th birthday. That morning, her father says he has changed his business trip so that he can spend time with her to celebrate her birthday. But Alice is quite clear: she has planned activities after school, later going to a restaurant with friends, and then a friend is hosting a party for her. She won’t change these plans for this last minute offer from her father, and they argue, leaving each other in anger. At the party, she gets a call. Her father has died in a car accident.
Alice feels guilty about the argument, especially after listening to an apologetic voice mail from him. The accident was near the home where the party was being hosted, and her guilt is augmented when she thinks he was trying to find her. But then something doesn’t ring true: the accident occurred at 8:22 far from the airport, but her father’s flight was at 8:00 p.m. Alice doesn’t let that fact go. A compelling story unravels, and I can’t reveal any more without spoiling the plot.
Not only is Life After well written, but a stellar cast appears in this premier stage production. Ellen Denny is excellent as Alice. A twenty-something young actor, she handles the mannerisms and speech patterns of a 16-year-old perfectly. Her emotional singing is riveting.
Dan Chameroy is perfect as the father and aptly portrays the overconfidence of a motivational speaker. He has a ghostlike ability to move in and out of scenes and makes use of the fire escape beside the stage to appear suddenly.
Trish Lindstrom gives us a slightly awkward teacher, delivering a dish to the grieving family. Lindstrom’s interpretation is brilliantly understated as she provides foreshadowing only recognizable in hindsight. Tracy Michailidis portrays a stressed mother, who appears to be dealing with grief. Again, an understated performance gives a feeling of authenticity. Sister Kate (Rielle Braid) and best friend Hannah (Kelsey Verzotti) provide contrast for the guilt and remorse that is eating Alice up.
Three ensemble members, Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, and Anika Johnson, provide beautiful harmonies, and gripping choreography throughout the show. It is interesting to note that Anika is the sister and frequent collaborator of the author, Britta Johnson.
The 18 songs that fill the 75 minute show are packed with emotion, and presented in a great variety, from loud belting numbers to ballads filled with anguish. There are duets of dialogue, mixed with solos with backup singers. The entire cast is made up of amazing vocal talents, but I was particularly taken with Chameroy’s voice.
The book, music and lyrics for Life After show a maturity well beyond the very young playwright. Britta Johnson grew up with the Stratford Festival in her back yard, and already has an impressive list of credentials. She wrote some of the songs in Life After when she was only 18, then put the show together for the Fringe Festival, where it won awards. Her ability to draw you into the lyrics and dialogue has been compared to Stephen Sondheim. I look forward to seeing the next iteration of Life After. Perhaps we will get to know the mother and the teacher better. I am sure this will become a full length hit musical, and we will certainly hear more about it.
Life After reminds me of Next to Normal, the Tony-award winning Broadway musical about a dysfunctional family trying to deal with mental illness. The plots are very different but the feel is similar. Life After has all the makings for the success that Next to Normal has had.
This gripping story reinforces my need to say proper goodbyes. But, regardless, it’s the kind of show that leaves you with much to think about.
Life After continues with eight shows a week at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto until Oct. 29. Call 416-368-3110or visit https://www.canadianstage.com for tickets.
Photo: Ellen Denny plays Alice and Dan Chameroy is her father. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Britta Johnson
Directed by Robert McQueen
Musical Direction by Reza Jacobs
Choreographed by Linda Garneau
Performed by Ellen Denny, Dan Chameroy, Tracy Michailidis, Trish Lindstrom, Rielle Braid, Kelsey Verzotti, Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, Anika Johnson.
Produced by Musical Stage Company, Canadian Stage and Yonge Street Theatricals
Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
September 28 extended to October 29, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson