Life After (The Musical Stage Company/Canadian Stage Company/Yonge Street Theatricals)
Neither writer-composer Britta Johnson nor star Ellen Denny are making their Toronto debuts with Life After, the extraordinarily moving new musical on now at Canadian Stage. Johnson co-wrote such shows as Brantwood, Jacob Two-Two And The Hooded Fang, and Stupidhead!; Denny was an understudy in the Mirvish production of The Audience. But they’ll both be remembered individually for this show, make no mistake.
Alice (Denny) is silent for nearly the first 10 minutes of the play, as she replays over and over a voicemail from her father Frank (Dan Chameroy), and numbly watches as a pageant of grief takes place around her. The voicemail is her last connection to her dad, a motivational speaker whose car crashed. As her tightly wound mother Beth (Tracy Michailidis) and older sister Kate (Rielle Braid, in a subtly comic supporting turn) attempt to move on after the wake, she fixates on the perplexing fact that the crash happened on the other side of town, after his scheduled plane flight. Her obsession is noted with concern by her favourite teacher Ms. Hopkins (Trish Lindström) and best friend Hannah (Kelsey Verzotti).
Most of Life After is sung through, like many shows by Stephen Sondheim, whose work Johnson admires greatly. Emotions run high as these characters grapple with grief and loss, and songs begin when words run out. But despite the show’s subject matter and its mystery-to-be-solved plot, there’s a surprising amount of humour observing the absurdities of public grief, much of it provided by the energetic “Greek Chorus” of Neema Bickersteth, Anika Johnson, and Barbara Fulton, who play all the fellow students and wake guests, and fans of Chameroy’s charismatic Frank, for instance.
That said, when Johnson and director Robert McQueen zero in on the heart, the tears will flow. Michailidis has a late show solo that’s particularly devastating, and Denny moves through emotional extremes with great veracity. The whole experience is intensely cathartic.
With Come From Away not scheduled to return until late 2018, we feel confident in saying this will be the best musical to open in 2017 on Toronto stages.
To October 22, Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street), Tuesday-Thursday/Saturday, 8 p.m., Friday, 7 p.m., Wednedsay/Saturday-Sunday, 1 p.m., $35-$59.