When the Australian production of Come From Away premiered in Melbourne in 2019, quite a few of the real people depicted in the joyous, uplifting musical were there in the audience – causing even more rapturous applause when they joined the cast onstage during the curtain call and stood next to the actor who had portrayed them.
Ever since Come From Away hit the big-time when it opened on Broadway in 2017, a group of the real people on whose story the show is based, have travelled the world to see it and lend their support – such is the emotional commitment they feel for the piece.
Come From Away, Melbourne. Photograph © Jeff Busby
You can see why. Canadian husband and wife David Hein and Irene Sankoff, who co-wrote the book, music and lyrics, spent a huge amount of time interviewing the people involved, and they have really captured their personalities as well as the open-hearted, generous spirit of life in Gander, Newfoundland where the show is set, choosing just the right musical and narrative style to suit the story.
Nick and Diane Marson – two of the characters featured, who met in Newfoundland and subsequently married – have seen the musical over 100 times on three continents, including the Melbourne opening. They would doubtless have been in Sydney too, were it not for COVID, which prevented any of the people portrayed from travelling to Australia. COVID also interrupted the Australian tour for close to a year and shuttered other productions around the world including on Broadway and in the West.
Happily, the Australian production returned to Melbourne in January this year. It has since played in Brisbane and has now arrived in Sydney. Currently, it is the only production of Come From Away playing anywhere in the world, though the West End production returns to the stage in July.
The show is set in September 2001, when American airspace was closed following the 9/11 attacks and 38 passenger planes were diverted to Gander – which had a big enough airport for that number of jets to land. The 9,300 people living in Gander and nearby villages suddenly found themselves playing host to almost 7,000 frightened passengers from around the world.
Come From Away, Melbourne. Photograph © Jeff Busby
The locals quickly rallied, opening their schools, homes and hearts to feed the passengers (and the animals in the planes’ holds) and make them feel welcome. The plane people – or “Come From Awayers” as the Ganderites called them – stayed there for five days. Lifetime friendships were forged, romance blossomed and a relationship between two plane folk ended. The hospitality and kindness of the Newfoundland community – where people leave their keys in their car and the doors of their homes unlocked – is truly inspirational.
The toe-tapping score, featuring folk-rock with a Celtic twist, is played by an onstage band of seven and is completely infectious. Kelly Devine’s choreography, which is vibrant with plenty of joyous stamping, also goes straight to the heart.
The songs are embedded in the storytelling, with scenes segueing into each other leaving little room for applause. Instead the show keeps powering forward. The dialogue is mostly underscored too.
Staged on a simple wooden set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, Christopher Ashley’s direction is supple and swift, making inventive use of chairs, a couple of tables and a stage revolve, with the cast moving the chairs to create aircraft cabins, pubs, cafés and wherever else the action takes them.
There is a wonderful simplicity to the writing and the staging. It is doubtless far more complex to achieve than it looks, but it means the show reaches out to the audience with a volt of feel-good energy.
The cast work as a tight ensemble, playing key roles each as well as several other characters. In fact, the 12 actors play four times as many roles, and they do so superbly. They may be shifting from a Ganderite to a ‘come from awayer’ with nothing more than the addition of a hat or a jacket, but you are always absolutely clear who they are playing.
Zoe Gertz as Beverley Bass in Come From Away, Melbourne. Photograph © Jeff Busby
There have been several cast changes since the Australian production opened, but it remains every bit as powerful. Stepping into the role of the big-hearted mayor Claude, Gene Weygandt is a wonderful anchor. Emma Powell reprises the role of the ebullient, kind-hearted Beulah who organises much of the school setup and forges a close (and touching) bond with plane passenger Hannah, played once again by Sharriese Hamilton, whose firefighter son is missing at Ground Zero.
Phillip Lowe has taken over the role of Nick, while on opening night Angela Kennedy played Diane – both of them excelling with delightful, gentle performances as they awkwardly, beautifully fall in love.
Returning to the role of groundbreaking pilot Beverly Bass, Zoe Gertz exudes great presence and authority. Kolby Kindle is very funny as New Yorker Bob who initially finds it hard to believe the generosity of the Newfoundlanders (as well as playing a dreamy pilot). Ash Roussety and Douglas Hansell as a couple, both called Kevin, Sarah Morrison as the newbie reporter Janice, Kellie Rode as the vet Bonnie, and Simon Maiden as Oz complete the cast and each nail their role.
Come From Away doesn’t ignore the suspicions surrounding a Muslim man called Ali (a composite of several characters), also played by Roussety, and the negative way he is treated, but for the most part Hein and Sankoff focus on the compassion and kindness that held sway, with plenty of humour along the way.
Running 100 minutes without interval, Come From Away is a refreshing, feel-good, uplifting piece about kindness and the power of community and sends you home with your heart singing.
Come From Away plays at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until 22 August