The 5th Avenue Theatre has historically been the first residence of many productions. The newest addition to its repertoire of world premieres is called Afterwords by Zoe Sarnak and Emily Kaczmarek. It follows sisters Kali and Simone as they struggle to piece their life back together following the death of their mother. With the new burden of ever-mounting bills and the house mortgage, they rent out their attic to news journalist Jo, who is similarly in the midst of wading through the churning sea of loss. As they get to know each other, a complex history of intersecting stories unravels and new relationships form. The show bounces between modern-day and the past as we meet our characters and explore their stories. This story is one of love and loss, grieving and healing, hardships and family.
Afterwords was very reminiscent of Rent. A newer, less rock, version of Rent, but Rent nonetheless. It has some of that raw and truthful emotion that Rent’s composer Jonathan Larson loved to utilize in his work. As I sat down in the theater, the first song “After” came on it immediately engaged me. The use of bold harmonies straight off the bat to build the music and draw the viewer in immediately gave me goosebumps and a sense of total encompassment. Now, as we evolve as a music loving society, Broadway evolves with us—Six embraces our pop side, Hadestown our love of folk and jazz and of course Hamilton the popularity of rap. So Afterwords’ pop/rock/folk score was not new per se, but still thrilling, and surprisingly cohesive throughout the show given the differing genres.
The Act One songs seemed to run into each other a little bit, all sounding rather similar. There needed to be something different to shake it up and provide a reprieve. Though, it was interesting to see a take on death and grieving that used upbeat songs rather than slow emotional ballads. This contrast served the show quite well; it played a sort of trick on your intuition by helping to portray grieving as not always black and white but rather in shades of grey. This was further indicated by Kali and Simone’s struggles while mourning their mother. They had to remember all the good things but also all the bad things, like her alcoholism and depression. Once you got past the initial ‘Oh’ moment there was a lot to smile about, but equally as much to weep about.
Act Two was the hard-hitting ballad act. There seemed to be a solid line drawn between Act One, where the show is desperately searching to keep your attention and Act Two, where it needed to nail home its emotional message. “Lonely-Hearted People” was the second song in Act One, flashing back in time to a concert, to the life that Kali had before her mom’s depression got worse. It became the emotional tie to Kali and eventually measured her growth as an individual. With that slower, more ballad-like reprise, it’s clear how much this song meant for her. It was not just highlighting what her life used to be, it was a connection to holding both good and bad memories of her mother.
The set was astounding and easily one of the best parts of the show. Initially imposing at first glance, it was a large, singular, rather chaotic piece atop a rotating platform to display different settings throughout the show. Every aspect of the design felt brilliant and purposeful; it was dynamic and ultimately incredibly beneficial to the story telling.
Another thing this show did which I was enthralled by was having four people play the roles of “Kali’s Voice” and “The Process.” They sung harmonies and elevated the music, but also did contemporary dance during some of the scenes to help convey a character’s emotion. They were like a shadow showing inner struggles and thoughts. It didn’t always work, but when it did it was very powerful.
The Act Two closer “I Have Today” felt like a new version of Rent’s “No Day But Today.” It had that same fierce belief in one day at a time, the growth of the journey, and the force of a full cast behind every line. The feeling was remarkably similar too—a sense of urgency crying ‘Listen to me. Listen to me! If nothing else, take this away from our stories.’ And what to take away? That loss is not black and white, nothing is black and white. You have to dig deeper, look at things in shades of grey and hold on to those you love to help you get through.
Afterwords is a typical story of loss but with a new, bolder interpretation, one that begs the audience to look closely and see what they find. It showed what depression and substance abuse was like for both the person and the people around them. It showed good days and bad, blossoming hope and crushing reality, while still managing to keep a ray of light present in the music.