"A Good Life" is a new musical for children about death. As far as musicals about death go, this one is excellent, neither maudlin nor threatening. But it does raise a question: Do children, whose greatest asset is unlimited possibility, really need to confront death?
Each parent will have to consider whether to face reality or postpone it before taking the little ones to this show, which opened last night in the Kennedy Center's Theater Lab as part of the free Imagination Celebration. If we all grew up, as people did before modern medicine, with death as a familiar event rather than a frighteningly exotic one that happens only in hospitals, perhaps the trauma of its reality would be less severe. On the other hand, what does a modern child learn from the idea that death is a small figure in a black velvet cloak?
Authors Jeff Moss (book and lyrics) and Stanley Silverman (music) have used a fairy tale to tell their slightly grim story. A soldier, discharged from the Russian Army, is sent on his way home with nothing but three dry biscuits. These he gives to beggars who cross his path, one of whom gives him strange gifts with magical properties: a bag that anything will go into and a deck of cards that will always win.
He encounters the Tsar, whose palace is inhabited by three ghoulish (but quite adorable) gremlins. The soldier tames the gremlins with his magic bag and cards, wins the Tsar's daughter, has a child, and lives "A Good Life." But Death appears to take his young son, and though the boy is spared, the spooky apparition is plainly on the prowl. While the child is on the brink, a doctor, lawyer and undertaker sing a rather macabre number as they dance gleefully around his bed waiting for him to expire. In another scene, the doctor asks his "beloved grandmother" to please pay his bill in cash once it is clear that she is going to pass into the great beyond, a tasteless remark to say the least.
Ultimately, the soldier must make a Faustian bargain with Death, trading his life for that of the Tsar. For a time he captures Death in the magic bag, but it soon becomes clear that no Death (he and the Tsar sing jauntily, "We're never gonna die!") is even worse than some Death, and the soldier is persuaded to let Death out of the bag, knowing that as he does, his time is limited. He passes painlessly away, merely feeling "lighter" as a dead person, while his family looks on forlornly. At least one mystery of life is solved: The place where you go after you die is neither Heaven nor Hell, but the back of the theater.
The music includes the right combination of plaintive songs and jolly production numbers. Laudably, they never patronize. Both production and performances are genuinely expert and sincere, and the audience responded with quiet attentiveness and appreciation. well-known director in New York, has staged the proceedings with simplicity and appropriate flair.
A Good Life, book and lyrics by Jeff Moss, music by Stanley Silverman, directed by A.J. Antoon. With Marion J. Caffey, Sara Carbone, Karen Culliver, Marc Stephen Del Gatto, Mark Enis, Laura Kenyon, David Shramm, Gordon Stanley and Greg Zerkle. At the Theater Lab through April 26.