Life After is a complex, moving look at grief, guilt and forgiveness

This expanded version of the Fringe 2016 hit works best in its quiet, simple moments, and confirms Britta Johnson's enormous talents

LIFE AFTER by Britta Johnson (Canadian Stage/Musical Stage Company/Yonge Street Theatricals). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to October 29. $35-$59. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNNN

After the tragic death of her father in a car accident, 16-year-old Alice (Ellen Denny), plagued with guilt about their heated final conversation, sifts through her memories and seeks answers about her mysterious dad’s life.

This would be suitable material for a straight drama, but Britta Johnson, one of the country’s most talented emerging composers and lyricists, has set it to music in the Canadian Stage/Musical Stage Company season opener. The result is a complex, moving look at grief, guilt and forgiveness.

Expanded from its successful Fringe 2016 production, the show features several new songs, an expanded chorus and added layers of narrative. At times – especially at the beginning – the interweaving of shimmering, busy melodic motifs and snatches of story is overwhelming. (Even I, who knew where the “plot” was heading, found it difficult to understand what was going on at first.)

Johnson, director Robert McQueen and musical director Reza Jacobs seem to be trying to evoke the swirl of emotions going through Alice’s mind as she deals with everything, including a series of posthumous tributes to her self-help guru father, Frank (Dan Chameroy), which are the least effective parts of the show.

Much stronger are the links between Alice and her older sister, Kate (Rielle Braid), a fiercely proud vegan, and her BFF, the scattered Hannah (Kelsey Verzotti), both of whom add moments of humour to lighten the tension.

And Alice’s mom, Beth (Tracy Michailidis) and supportive teacher, Ms. Hopkins (Trish Lindström), an admirer of Frank’s books, are mourning in their own way. One scene, in which Alice and her mother paint their house, an activity that takes on symbolic weight, is moving because it’s done so simply and quietly.

Denny, her expression pained and her body coiled up in anxiety for most of the show, is a believable and touching Alice, while Chameroy exudes charisma as Frank, his songs suggesting a crooner-ish swagger. Michailidis expresses a lot with a look and posture, while Braid brings a fresh approach to every line she sings.

McQueen makes good use of Brandon Kleiman’s set, dominated by a series of wooden platforms, although there’s almost too much use of the Berkeley Street ladders and aisles.

The real star is Johnson, who, judging from this score and the maturity of her vision, has a long career ahead of her.

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