Maybe it’s a sign of our times that musicals about the aftermath of loss and grief have become so prominent in 21st-century life, from Next to Normal to Dear Evan Hansen. But while both those shows relied on plot devices that hinged on audience misdirection in the case of the former (the better to illustrate the mental disintegration of the mother at the center of the story) and a pretty disquieting Big Lie in the case of the latter, Britta Johnson’s Life After is going for something much less complicated, and yet also more profound. Judging by Annie Tippe’s admirably heartfelt production at the Goodman, this first-time musical largely succeeds at its simple aims.
Through 7/17: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also sensory-friendly/relaxed performance Tue 7/12, 7:30 PM, ASL interpreted Fri 7/15, 8 PM, Spanish subtitles Sat 7/16, 8 PM, open captions Sun 7/17, 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$80
Which isn’t to say that Johnson’s musical about a teenager searching for clues about the sudden death of her father in a car accident doesn’t have mystery in its favor. The story hinges on Alice (Samantha Williams) trying to figure out why her father, Frank (Paul Alexander Nolan), a popular self-help author (his bestseller is Transformotions—a title mocked by his youngest offspring), didn’t make his flight the night of her 16th birthday. Was he looking for her because they had a huge argument that morning? Was he looking for someone else? A champion debater, Alice feels most at home in the world of facts to support a thesis. But death isn’t neat and categorizable. And we’re all going to lose our argument with it eventually.
Johnson, a native of Stratford, Ontario, lost her own father at age 13, which may account for the refreshing honesty and general lack of sentimentality in her story and her score. Much here is familiar to anyone who has been through a family loss. We meet siblings who have very different relationships with their dead parent. Alice’s older sister, Kate, played with smoldering rage and protective one-liners by Skyler Volpe, believes she was never their father’s favorite. Mother Beth, played with warmth and barely-holding-it-together forthrightness by Bryonha Marie Parham, can’t wait to replace the flowered wallpaper in Frank’s former study with neutral beige paint, which feels like erasure to Alice. For Beth (as expressed with sorrowful passion by Parham in “Wallpaper”), it represents a chance to reclaim her own life from the shadow of her charismatic husband.
And throughout there are the choral utility-player Furies (Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lauryn Hobbs, and Chelsea Williams) who bring endless casseroles; gossip like the “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little” townswomen in The Music Man; serve as the high school “mean girls” newly interested in Alice once her loss makes her interesting; and erect plaques and park benches to a man who they revered for his insights (the very ones mocked by Alice), and who died before his children could really know who he was. There’s also Alice’s adorably dorky best friend, Hannah (the scene-stealing Lucy Panush), who sees Frank as a surrogate dad, and her debate coach, Ms. Hopkins (Jen Sese), who is hiding a secret, but not the one Alice first suspects.
There are some lags in the evening, even at 90 minutes—sometimes we get ahead of Alice in terms of where the story is going, and though the meddling Furies are fun (especially when they’re performing Ann Yee’s sprightly choreography), the joke becomes repetitive. The show almost feels as if Johnson intended it to be sung-through entirely, then changed her mind and inserted more expositional scenes, not all of which feel that illuminating.
There are ways in which the show reminds me of Fun Home, the brilliant musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her closeted father. But Life After doesn’t split Alice’s perspective in three parts at different stages of her life, as that show does. (We do see a few flashbacks that flesh out the relationships, but no big leap into an adult perspective for Alice occurs.) Instead, we see Alice and her family slowly coming to terms with the understanding that closure isn’t real, but life does go on, no matter how unimaginable it might seem at the time.
That’s arguably a slight message, as predictable as the aphorisms Frank deals out in his books about forgiving yourself and moving on. But at its best, Life After finds truthful moments that hit the heart and head with equal force.