Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, West 45th Street, New York
April 3, 2018
Everyone has their 9/11 story – what they were doing and how they felt when the planes hit the Twin Towers – but not all are as compelling or inspiriting as those told in Come From Away, the little Canadian musical that could.
Jenn Colella and the cast of Come From Away. Photo © Matthew Murphy, 2017
Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s big-hearted, passionate whirlwind of a show has garnered rave reviews during a momentum-building run from workshops in Oakville, Ontario to Washington and Toronto. Winding up on the Great White Way last year, it was nominated for seven Tony awards (including Best Musical) and ultimately won for Best Direction. Now, the standing-room-only show, to which refugee-friendly Justin Trudeau pointedly took Ivanka Trump, is headed for Melbourne, and it’s fair to say that Australian audiences are in for a treat. And not only that. With its tight, finely-crafted script and approachable music, Come From Away achieves that rare feat of being broad enough to appeal even to people who don’t care for musicals.
Set in the days immediately following the September 11 attacks, the musical tells the little-known (until now) true story of the tiny town of Gander in remote Newfoundland and what happened when 38 US-bound planes were ordered to land unexpectedly at their airstrip. Back in the day when transatlantic planes needed to refuel on the North American coast, Gander had boasted one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Their fame as a transit stop had long faded, but when terrorists struck and American airspace was closed, their geographical location and historical capacity turned a moderately sleepy community upside down as nigh-on 7000 international passengers needed to be fed and accommodated at zero notice for nearly a week. The travellers almost doubled the local population overnight.
Scrupulously researched by the writers who visited Newfoundland on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, many of the characters are based on actual residents of the town as well as some of the stranded passengers, many of whom have kept in touch with their hosts over the years. A town made up entirely of immigrants, everyone in Gander has, as the local expression has it, “come from away”, hence the curious name for the musical. The sympathetic locals put aside their own petty disputes – there was a school bus strike in the offing – and rally round, rustling up everything from food and blankets to translators and tampons. In other words, it’s a triumph of resourcefulness and human decency over what must have been enormous odds.
The cast of Come From Away. Photo © Matthew Murphy, 2016
Come From Away is a true ensemble show in which 12 actors are required to play four times as many roles. There’s Claude Elliot, the hard-talking big-hearted mayor (a suitably warm-yet-craggy Joel Hatch); Beulah, the capable, sympathetic school teacher (a marvellously authentic Astrid van Wieren); Janice, the rookie TV reporter (a wide-eyed Alex Finke); and Bonnie, the feisty SPCA officer (gutsy Petrina Bromley) who single-mindedly rescues 19 assorted animals seemingly forgotten in various cargo holds.
And then there are the passengers, an eclectic slice of life including several New Yorkers desperate to get home to loved ones (in 2001, we are reminded, a plane might easily include only one mobile phone!). As awkward, lonely oil executive Nick (a touching Lee MacDougall) bonds with Texan divorcee Diane (an equally believable Sharon Wheatley), Kevin and Kevin (the entertaining Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) learn that even the smallest of small towns can accept a couple of gay vegetarians. Meanwhile, Hannah (a sympathetic Q. Smith) is desperate to hear from her son, a New York City firefighter, while an Egyptian passenger, Ali (Samayoa again), is singled out for immediate suspicion. The one big solo number goes to the real-life trailblazing pilot who made history as the first female captain on American Airlines. Beverley Bass (a splendidly accomplished performance by Julie Reiber standing in for Tony Award-nominated Jenn Colella) is forced to confront the struggle that a colleague must have undergone at the wheel of the plane that crashed short of its suspected target, the Pentagon.
Some stories end happily, others not. With moose jokes and a running Celine Dion gag offsetting the incipient tragedy, you laugh and cry in equal measure, and I suspect I wasn’t the only audience member who lost it completely after the curtain when, during a Broadway Cares collection speech, we were told that the real Nick and Diane were sitting two rows in front of us.
The cast of Come From Away. Photo © Matthew Murphy, 2016
Christopher Ashley’s smartly fluid, energetic direction, with just enough movement-based choreography courtesy of Kelly Devine, juggles his playing pieces deftly against Beowulf Borrit’s simple yet atmospheric treescape dappled with Howard Binkley’s sensitive lighting. It’s a fast-paced show with a shapely book that tells its tales with remarkable efficiency over an uninterrupted 90 minutes. Characters come and go, clothes are changed, but never distractingly. Despite the chameleon-like skills of the all-shapes-and-sizes cast, we soon get a handle on the characters and before we know it we are caring for all of them. Religion intrudes, but never too heavy-handedly; there’s sentiment but it’s never mawkish. Even the oddball Newfoundland accents that take some getting used to, soon feel entirely familiar.
The highly accessible score for Come From Away is a blend of rock and country with, presumably, a heavy dollop of Newfoundland folk (there’s a definite Celtic twist). The excellent, hard-working eight-piece band under keyboard and accordionist Ian Eisendrath is worth the price of a ticket alone. With penny whistles, Uillean Pipes, fiddle, Bodhran drums, mandolin and Bouzouki in the mix there’s a great deal to tickle the ear, even though, for all its pleasing accessibility, it may not be the most memorable of scores. Oddly enough, that seldom seems to matter in the hurly-burly of the drama. Standout numbers include Beverley’s soaring Me and the Sky, and the infectious stomp, Screech In, during which a group of passengers are welcomed at a local hostelry as honorary Newfoundlanders, an initiation that involves much alcohol and a deal of fish kissing.
The cast of Come From Away. Photo © Matthew Murphy, 2017
Come From Away is a wonderfully original show full of complex emotions that reaches out and draws you close to its heart with open arms and well-filled lungs. As initial suspicion (on both sides) and reserve (on the side of the travellers) give way to mutual respect, acts of kindness, and the forging of bonds of friendship, the show becomes a welcome reminder of all that can be best in humanity. In these mean-spirited, put-yourself-first times, that is a message worth remembering from time to time. If Broadway’s reaction is anything to go by, my advice is to book now.
Come From Away opens at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne in July 2019
News and ticket waitlist can be found HERE