Afterwords, A New Musical
5th Avenue Theatre
Through May 21, 2022
Get tickets and more info here
Afterwords is the newest musical produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre. The show opened on May 6th and while still a work in progress, it is an enjoyable evening. The story is solid. The acting was excellent, and the songs/lyrics were all good. There are a few issues with the production, but with a little more work, the musical shows good promise.
The story line starts with two funerals: Lydia, a single mother of two adult women that harbors a secret from her past, and a less than secret drinking problem. The other funeral is of Jimmy, a hardened professional journalist whom specializes in wartime correspondence and reporting. Lydia’s two daughters Kali, a professional singer/songwriter, and Simone, a somewhat talented painter, mourn their mother, while Jimmy is mourned by his protégé, Jo, a rookie writer that he has taken under his wing and mentors as if she were his own child. After Jimmy’s death, Jo discovers the many notebooks that he left behind detailing his assignments, personal thoughts and several secrets that lead her to find Lydia. When she discovers that Lydia has died, Jo ends up moving into the house with Simone and Kali under the excuse of getting a writing assignment finished. When she becomes involved in the lives of the two daughters, the bell jar that shrouds the house in secrecy is finally shattered, and old buried secrets are brought to light.
The show is good but still needs some work. The two daughters both do excellent jobs in their roles. Kali (played by understudy Eliza Palasz) was incredible as the successful singer/songwriter that has a breakdown after their mother’s death, and hasn’t written anything since. Her voice is strong and Ms. Palasz conveys to the audience the inner struggle of trying to move on with life while caught in the middle of a depression. If Ms. Palasz is the understudy, then the 5th Avenue has another “Shirley MacLaine” situation where the ‘fill in’ actress has full potential to outshine the original cast member (the role is usually played by Andi Alhadeff, who was ill on opening night. The audience was assured – in almost a paranoid way – that it wasn’t due to Covid). Ms. Palasz brings the emotional baggage to the character easily and presents it to the audience in a way that we can follow and understand her journey. The younger sister, Simone (played by Kerstin Anderson) is more of the rebel, freethinker of the two siblings. Simone is a painter, mostly of murals, and struggles with leaving her (alcoholic) mother alone with her sister while she goes off to college. Ms. Anderson’s voice is very strong and she does a great job of showing (most of) the turmoil that the character goes through. Both women have powerful instruments and are actresses to watch for future performances.
Brandon O’Neill, a long time 5th Avenue alumni, plays the role of the lifelong, wartime journalist, Jimmy. Mr. O’Neill completely embodies the role of this seasoned reporter. His voice is strong and he brings the proper amount of emotion to the character showing us his delights and shortcomings as a man and journalist that is torn between the job he loves and has been dedicated to, and the woman that he has always loved. Mari Nelson plays the role of the mother, Lydia. Ms. Nelson does an excellent job showing us the strength of the single mother, as well as her struggles with alcoholism. From the moment she walks on stage, the audience knows this character’s life experiences has ‘ridden hard and put her away wet’. Ms. Nelson brings this character to life on the stage, and it is someone we all have known at one time or another.
The real star of this show is Jo, played by Anastacia McCleskey. This woman has stage presence! She has stage appeal! She has a great voice that easily reaches the audience, and immediately endears them to her. Ms. McCLeskey shows us the struggle of her ‘rookie’ reporter character, growing up and trying to understand Jimmy, the man she has come to look at as mentor, and father figure in her life. His death sends her into a tailspin, and it is her desire to fully represent him in an obituary tribute that leads her to find Lydia, and throws her into the maelstrom of Lydia’s two damaged daughters.
Afterwords is a work in progress. There are definitely good bones here and a foundation that works, but there are also flaws that need to be ironed out (or completely changed) before it reaches its final stages. Some of the good things that work in this show are the plot. The story is strong enough to hold the audience’s attention, get us invested in the characters, and leads us along on the journey that it is meant to take us. The characters are lifelike and not two-dimensional. Simone’s lesbianism is never made a big deal, and everyone accepts it as a part of every-day life – AS IT SHOULD BE! When Simone and Jo meet, there is an instant attraction. There is never the awkward conversation of “You mean you’re a lesbian? Me too!” and it’s just accepted as instant flirtation. For once the audience is given credit to be smart enough to figure out the attraction instead of having the point beaten over our heads. The songs are well done and definitely promote the storyline, as should be with a musical, without being ‘just another number thrown in’ because, you know, it’s a musical. The set is gorgeous! It mostly takes place in the home where their mother raised the two girls, and where their lives were so intricately woven together. The audience immediately feels the history of the house as well as being shown the years of love and living by the decorate hoarding of books and items on the background shelves. There is dancing in this show, not in the way audiences are usually accustomed, and the dancers are beautiful to watch.
No matter how good a foundation is already built, Afterwords also has flaws that need work. There are several minor issues that can be easily ironed out, and two glaring problems that need considerable reworking. Kali hears phantom music and voices, and it is this etherealness that guides her back to her work after her mother dies. Unfortunately, it is only brought out in brief flashes and adds absolutely nothing to the story line. It’s too much like “Waitress, the musical” where the phantom voices are those that whisper to the struggling artist. Simone’s drinking, and following in her mother’s footsteps, is subtle; almost too subtle, and the audience needs a little more of seeing her fall down this rabbit hole. The character of Simone needs to be brought out in more detail, as she is passed over by the talents and focus of her sister, Kali. Simone is supposed to be a painter, just as inspired as her sister, but the audience doesn’t get a feel for her work. It’s briefly mentioned that she paints murals, and is going to college to further her art, but any ethereal inspiration passes over this sister without mention. It seems that Kali is the successful artist and Simone’s talent seems like more of a mere hobby. When Jo moves into the house with the two sisters, not telling them the real reason for her renting the apartment, it is a complete conflict of interest when she gets involved with Simone on a romantic level. She’s supposed to be a professional journalist but doesn’t seem to have any hesitation getting involved in this touchy situation.
There are two glaring problems with the show that this audience member just couldn’t get past. Jimmy leaves behind a letter for Jo. The letter is from her mentor/father figure, obviously of great personal importance, extremely personal and practically screams “THIS IS PERSONAL”! Yet no one seems to respect that. Jo’s best friend Franklin (played with good comic relief by Saxton Jay Walker) is the first to violate Jo’s privacy just because she isn’t answering his phone messages. He is supposed to be a professional reporter/journalist, yet he has no hesitation is violating Jo’s privacy. Franklin tells Jo’s voicemail that the letter was left behind, specifically for her, by her mentor/father figure, yet he has very little hesitation in opening and reading it. THEN, despite several more voicemails without telling her the content, waits at least a week before hand delivering it to Jo’s residence, and leaves it with… Kali. Kali, after being told that the letter is important and explains all, decides to take it upon herself to read this highly personal/private/important letter that is clearly addressed to Jo. Any cause or provocation of this action is unclear why she would do such a complete violation. When Jo discovers this, she’s not infuriated by the action, and pretty much watches as Kali hands the letter over to … her sister Simone to read, making Jo the final person to read an important letter that was left specifically to her. There’s no penalty shown for these actions, and no closure to the relationships that were previously formed. The songs are good with lyrics that resonate – at the time. Outside of one song (“Now, Soon, Later”), I didn’t find the well-crafted music lingering long outside of the performance. The only reason that particular song remained in mind is that the lyrics are reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” where he also used a trio of actors that sang these same three words as the anchor of their character’s anguish as well. The song is well done, but it immediately puts itself into comparison with the great impresario. When Lydia gives a heartfelt and revealing speech towards the end, it seems out of place that this would be the one and only diary entry, and seems more out of place that it would be done randomly in her lover’s journal.
The second issue is kind of an odd juxtaposition – the dancers. There are dancers called “The Process”. These characters (played by Cara Diaz, Ashley Menestrina, Timothy Michael Keller, and Kirsten Delohr Helland) are meant to express the inner emotions of the characters expressed through dance. They are in control of each muscle in their bodies (especially dance captain, Diaz) and they are intriguing and beautiful to watch. There within lies the problem. The Process appears usually during songs that the actors are singing. The dancers pull focus, distract, and commands attention to the point that it takes the audience several moments to remember, “Oh yeah. There’s a major character on stage that is singing about something personal that maybe I should pay attention to”. At that point, we’ve lost the thread of what the song is about, and gladly turn our focus back to the dancers until the number is over. While these dancers are lithe and delightful to watch, they don’t really add anything except distraction, and maybe its very ‘old school’, but if inner turmoil is to be shown, maybe the people acting, and trying to fully inhabit their characters should be doing it – that’s kind of their job.
Afterwords is a good show – at its base and foundation. I do encourage audience members to go and see this work-in-progress if for nothing else, to compare the excitement of watching a good show get reworked into a better one. There are many things to enjoy in this production, but if it went to Broadway as is, it would (most likely) have a decent run of less than a year (as with so many good shows – Amour, First Date…) and be left to the obscurity of future theatre enthusiasts. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The 5th Avenue Theatre has produced more than 20 original productions. These work-shopped musicals are never easy to bring to a stage and the theatre definitely deserves support, kudos and major applause for taking these works under their wing. Many great shows have developed from their pre-Broadway productions (Shrek, Hairspray, Memphis, Come From Away) and a few not as successful shows (Lone Star Love, Saving Aimee), as is the nature of the business. It remains to be seen with the upcoming original production of The Griswold’s Broadway Vacation as to which category it falls into. Either way, audiences should continue to go to the theatre and support the process of bringing new musicals to Broadway.
Afterwords, A New Musical
5th Avenue Theatre
Through May 21, 2022
Get tickets and more info here