Review: LIFE AFTER

by Lynn on October 15, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Musical Stage Company and Canadian Stage Present:

Life After

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Britta Johnson
Directed by Robert McQueen
Musical director, Reza Jacobs
Choreographer, Linda Garrneau
Set by Brandon Kleiman
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Peter McBoyle
Costumes by Ming Wong
Main Cast: Rielle Braid
Dan Chameroy
Ellen Denny
Trish Lindström
Tracy Michailidis
Kelsey Verzotti

Plays to Oct. 29. (it’s been held over by popular demand). www.musicalstagecompany.com

The hugely gifted composer, lyricist, writer, Britta Johnson has written a poignant, moving show on loss, grief, regret, guilt, love, moving on and letting go.

Alice has had a fight with her often absent father Frank on her birthday. He has unexpectedly come home from an extensive book tour to celebrate her birthday as a surprise. Alice is surprised alright and angry. She has plans. Her father leaves to take a flight back to his book tour. Alice will regret that bad parting for the rest of the show. So will Alice’s sister Kate and their mother Beth.

Johnson has said in her program note that sometimes words aren’t enough to express an emotion so she writes songs to overcome that inadequacy. Johnson is a wonderful lyricist who can encapsulate a host of conflicting emotions in richly worded songs. In one of Frank’s messages to Alice he sings: “Control what you can, let go of the rest.” Sound, thoughtful advice. Britta Johnson’s lyrics are equally as poetic in songs for Beth who laments her absent husband with bitterness. Alice’s sister Kate has her own regrets and Johnson deals with Kate’s sense of loss that is so right and true for that character.

And while one is impressed with Britta Johnson’s prodigious talent one gets the sense in this dense 75 minute show of 18 songs, that perhaps some judicious cutting is in order. The most poignant song in the whole cycle is “Wallpaper” when Beth, Alice and Kate are painting Frank’s room as their final good-by. It is the most effective because it’s only the three of them on stage, quiet, focused and slowly painting. It says everything about their shared sense of loss and grief and yet shows them in a distinctive light. The show should end there but Johnson has three more songs which really re-state what has already been expressed. In Robert McQueen’s overly staged, often unfocused, cacophonous production that quiet scene certainly does stand out in contrast. One wishes that McQueen tamed down other scenes to better serve the story.

This is really a story about a family of four and Alice’s teacher Ms Hopkins. Dan Chameroy as Frank, is suave, charming and appealing. Frank has a secret and Chameroy plays him with a beguiling aloofness that is both mysterious and attractive. And of course he sings like a dream. Ellen Denny plays Alice as a wounded, conflicted teen, missing her father yet angry at him for not being there enough. As Kate, Rielle Braid has her own issues as Alice’s sister. Kate is also angry because in a way she is left out of the father-daughter equation. Tracey Michailidis plays Beth, the wife who is left to tend the house and family while Frank travels to promote his books. Beth’s songs are full of pent up emotion and Michailidis sings them well. Finally Trish Lindström plays Ms Hopkins, Alice’s teacher with a touch of awkwardness. She too has a secret and she tries to be cool about it.

So Life After is really about a family of four and another woman. One wonders, therefore, why there is a chorus of three who mainly flit and twirl around the stage singing at a really high pitch and why there is a need for Alice’s friend Hannah, a ditzy twit played with a one-noted screech by Kelsey Verzotti, who speaks too quickly to be understood. Hannah sings a song about a party that is not earned by the character.

McQueen certainly fills the space of the unwieldy Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs. Characters appear way above the stage on a fire escape, or over there in the aisle, or over there by a door way stage right. Added to this is all the busy movement on stage, seemingly for no reason, and one wonders what all this frantic activity is all about. Scenes are most effective when characters are isolated in their own emotional solitude, but the general swirl of activity leaves one dizzy.

The Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs is one unforgiving room. It’s so wide that it’s difficult to design a credible set on it. Brandon Kleiman’s spare, blonde wood multi levelled set, with a blonde wood table and chairs, covers the space, but again, that means the staging is all over the place. My eyebrows crinkle when I see a chair on the downstage right lowest level of the stage facing up-stage directly in front of my view. That means that when someone sits or stands in front of the chair, which happens often, I can’t see what is happening in the scene upstage. That’s not a good thing.

And then there is the sound of this unforgiving, relatively smallish theatre space. It’s a challenge to project the voice so the audience can hear. In a musical that seems to mean that the production people feel they have to microphone the cast to be heard. Not content with that, they also microphone the orchestra—in the case of Life After that’s an orchestra of six, mainly strings, one piano and percussion. So there are the singers belting out their songs at full, amplified voice trying to compete with an orchestra going full throttle in microphoned loudness and the result is not splendid music, it’s cacophonous noise. Britta Johnson’s splendid music and lyrics come out as noise. Unacceptable.

A new musical by Britta Johnson, one of our most gifted composer-lyricist-writers, is cause for celebration. The fact that I have to say that the production of Life After is such a disappointment gives me no pleasure. Take this under advisement. If you do see it, sit in the middle towards the back. Perhaps it’s better there.

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1 Kent James October 16, 2017 at 3:08 pm

Hi Lynn:

One is hard pressed to believe that one saw the same show as you did, with a couple of exceptions.

One agrees that Britta Johnson is hugely gifted. One agrees further that both sound and appreciation of the staging vary based on where one is seated – one, well, this one anyway, me… I… liked it best from the upper left audience point of view – looking directly at the prow of the stage if you imagine it as a ship deck, pointed end extending into the audience. It’s complicated music and intricate lyrics, and it’s true that, particularly in the front rows, at times it was hard to distinguish lyrics coming at you from several places. I’m glad I got to see it a few times, and I recognize that not everyone is in the same boat.

I loved the chorus, and thought that it enabled a much different story to be told – a story that showed “Frank’s fans” and “the public” and “Alice’s schoolmates” as characters, their public response contrasted with the family’s personal loss . I also loved the actresses in the chorus, who are vocally stunning together (“singing at a really high pitch”??) and also amazing the one or two times that we hear them individually – Neema Bickersteth, Anika Johnson, and Barbara Fulton. In fact the whole cast sang beautifully (Yes, one, in this case including my mother, sometimes had some trouble hearing their articulation of lyrics.).

One wrote “Added to this is all the busy movement on stage, seemingly for no reason, and one wonders what all this frantic activity is all about.” Is this a complaint about choreography in a musical, or a characterization of Linda Garneau’s specific choreography, which I loved, but which one – well, you – refer to as “busy movement on stage”?

The Hannah character is, I think, written to evoke a kind of character that is bound to be annoying to one if one falls into a particular age group. Her song may not be earned, whatever one means by that, but what it exposes is central to the plot, central to grounding the event in Alice’s world, and it’s funny (one’s mileage may vary).

I liked it the first time, and loved it more each time I saw it. One suspects that many great musicals are like that.

With great respect, and congrats on the Intermission gig!!

Kent

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