The 5th Avenue Theatre’s Afterwords, a new musical about three women working through an unexpectedly intertwined grief, is a bone-shaking masterpiece.
The show follows sisters Kali and Simone six months after their mom has passed, living together in their childhood home. When finances get tight, they search for a roommate. Jo, a journalist mourning the loss of her mentor, moves in, hoping the change in scenery will help her write his eulogy. The show switches from past to present—it follows Kali and Simone’s mother as she falls in love and cares for her daughters in the months leading to her death, and how Jo’s mentor shapes who she will become—to the women trying to navigate the space they left. The final twist completed the tragedy of the relationship of these five.
With such a small cast, Afterwords examined each character under a magnifying glass, showcasing every nuance of their dynamics. Kali is trapped in the past, refusing to let things change as she blames herself and her sister for letting their mother’s addiction get out of hand. Refusing to let the house move past a shrine to her late mother, she grips what she can’t have. In muted brown, hippie-style tones, she haunts her own home. Her sister is seemingly her opposite. Simone puts on a carefree persona but secretly drinks to handle the pressure of guilt, blaming herself. In bright florals, Kali urges her sister to let go, believing she has done the same. When Jo enters, business-like and butch, Kali jumps at the distraction. Both take to indulgence, in the kindling of a new romance. Akin to a healthier version of Joanne and Maureen from Rent, the romance that begins between them is fascinating, and a step forward in casual representation.
The set was incredibly detailed, a shrine to a woman long gone. Worn staircases and built in bookshelves painted a picture of a fraught childhood. Projections of memories lit a well loved and lived in house. It had a sense of magical realism about it, as the memories melded into modern struggles. With a turn of the stage, towering bookshelves became a skyline and a sleek newsroom, and bedrooms became warzones. This set created a world of memories almost to a suffocating extent, as the three women tried to not get lost in their grief.
The powerful pop rock soundtrack contrasted this worn and familiar setting. Powerful, emotional, and versatile, the music explored the depth of these women’s relationships, as they went from war reporting to on stage tours. These women’s grief, rage, and love for one another literally shook the theater. Andi Alhadeff (Kali), Kerstin Anderson (Simone) and Anastacia McCleskey (Jo) are three of the most powerful voices I have ever heard.
What couldn’t be heard by stunt belts was shown by the “Voices” and “The Process”, a group of dancers who used movement to shadow the characters through addiction and grief. Modern dance articulated what the characters could not say, and, combined with the impressive stunt belting, gave the impression of overwhelming emotion. The song “Now, Soon, Later,” a flashback in which the sisters and their mother celebrated her birthday, was the first real use of this tool. The mother, Lydia, (Mari Nelson) in the depths of depression and withdrawal, begs for a drink and sings the refrain “Soon,”—meaning soon she will die, as she cannot live like this forever. Dancers in stained jumpsuits cling to her, only easing their grip when she is finally granted her wish. Unable to see the dancers, Kali sings “Now!” meaning the problems must be addressed, while Simone sings “Later,” trying to avoid confrontation.
If this show is not on the Broadway track, it should be, if solely for the reason of an official cast album release. It is an emotional journey that left me weeping. Refusing to let loss stay bleak, this was a story of letting go of grief and moving on.