Theater review

Loss is a common denominator in “Afterwords,” a new musical by Zoe Sarnak and Emily Kaczmarek onstage at the 5th Avenue Theatre in a world premiere production. Jo (Anastacia McCleskey) is a war reporter reeling professionally and personally from the death of her colleague and mentor in Iraq. In seeking to honor his legacy, she’s taken on a tough new assignment at the paper they worked at.

Kali (Andi Alhadeff) and Simone (Kerstin Anderson) are sisters whose mother died in a car accident a few months prior. While art school-dropout Simone is determined to move on — she’s ready to purge the house the three shared and glibly announces she doesn’t want to be known as the “dead mom girl” — Kali’s trauma sits closer to the surface. A singer-songwriter, she’s turned into a recluse after breaking down onstage, including an incident where she took a hammer to a piano.

That image is an apt metaphor for Sarnak’s songs and Kaczmarek’s book, which both pound away at the pathos relentlessly, plunking the same note over and over as they make broad gestures about grief and addiction without ever meaningfully grappling with the topics.

As the show opens, Jo tells the audience some stories that don’t seem to have anything in common actually are intertwined, and Kaczmarek uses that as an organizing principle, freighting every interaction with an undercurrent of hidden meaning. The impulse to tie everything and everyone together results in some revelations that feel awfully convenient.

Jo enters Kali and Simone’s lives when she rents out their attic for a place to work on her story, and the sparks fly — aggravation from Kali, who bristles at any change to her status quo, and lust from Simone, who sees how stressed Jo is and offers to help.

Flashbacks fill out the backstories. Jo first meets her mentor Jimmy (Brandon O’Neill) as a rookie reporter trying to impress the veteran journalist, and his gruff façade quickly gives way to a collegial bond, especially when she opens up about her religious parents’ rejection after she came out.

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Kali and Simone’s mom, Lydia (Mari Nelson), is a paragon of single-mom fortitude, providing for her kids and nurturing their artistic ambitions, all the while struggling with her own demons. The show’s treatment of Lydia’s alcoholism is the most egregious example of its tendency to flatten out difficult subjects into after-school-special lessons, but PTSD and homophobia aren’t immune.

Sarnak’s score, mostly comprising synthetic pop-rock jams underpinned by hand claps or dull drumbeats, does have its more interesting moments, like “Now, Soon, Later,” a brooding modal number where Lydia, Kali and Simone’s vocals converge while their desires conflict. And folk-pop song “Lonely-Hearted People” has a hook credible enough for us to believe it propelled Kali to stardom, even if the lyrics suffocate on maudlin sentiment.

About the only respite anywhere from that feeling resides with designated comic relief repository Franklin, Jo’s cheeky BFF, the archetype enlivened by Saxton Jay Walker’s performance. And if anything will salvage this staging, it’s the strong performances across the board. Nelson, in particular, digs past the shallow material, imbuing her vocals with a ragged hopefulness that says much more than her dialogue.

The 5th’s production is directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who’s guided “Afterwords” through some of its development, including a 2018 Beta Series staging at Village Theatre in Issaquah. Here, there seems to be an urge to go bigger, transforming what is fundamentally a chamber musical into something more imposing. Carey Wong’s attractive but overengineered set towers over the actors, rotating to transition between a detritus-filled house and a sleek Manhattan high-rise. And in an exceptionally misguided conceit, an ensemble of four frequently dances around the characters to convey artistic inspiration or emotional distress. These are not themes that needed emphasizing.

“Afterwords” swells with feeling from its first notes, and it doesn’t stop swelling, leaving every interaction devoid of the contours of recognizable human emotion. The more it insists we feel, the more anesthetized it becomes.

“Afterwords”

Music and lyrics by Zoe Sarnak. Book by Emily Kaczmarek. Through May 21; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $49-$169; proof of vaccination or negative test and masks are required; 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org

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