– By Cate Marquis –
When 9/11 happened, the whole world was in shock. Amid all the horror, some tales of bravery and kindness also emerged. Among the most striking was the tale of kindness from tiny Newfoundland, Canada, where some planes were diverted after American airspace was shut down. COME FROM AWAY is the hit Broadway musical that tells that story, about how the people in a tiny Canadian community opened their homes and hearts to stranded strangers who had come from away.
The Tony-winning COME FROM AWAY is one of the best shows of the Fox’s 2018-2019 season, a true must-see for every audience. This wonderful musical, with book, lyrics and music by Canadian husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff, is heartfelt, inspiring, and often humorous, as it boils down its tale of human beings thrown together by circumstances over five days into a 90 minute show, with no intermission. The fast-paced, lively, tuneful production offers culture clashes that resolve into friendships and showcases that best side of people that can emerge in crisis. Besides a Tony for Best Direction, COME FROM AWAY has already won several theater awards and has been a wildly-popular hit on Broadway and elsewhere. It is a real coup for the Fox to get it so quickly.
“Come from away” is how the people of Newfoundland describe visitors to their island, even calling strangers “come-from-aways.” It is quirky and charming but although Newfoundland is a small isolated island in the Atlantic, the people there are used to welcoming strangers who “come from away.” Its large airport was once an essential re-fueling stop for trans-Atlantic planes for decades. But with the advent of more fuel-efficient planes, it had fallen into near-disuse by 2001 and was on the verge of closing. Only a few planes still used it and only a handful of air traffic controllers still staffed it.
The tiny nearby town of Gander was more prepared to hear news that the airport would be shut-down than news they suddenly would be hosting 7000 people on numerous international flights for an indefinite stay. But like good people in small towns everywhere, the unexpected news sent the town’s people scrambling, under direction of their mayor and other community leaders, to gather supplies and find a place to house all those visitors, who would nearly double the town’s population of 9000. The people of Gander greeted the bewildered passengers with “Welcome to the Rock,” the local nickname for Newfoundland.
That is also the title of an infectious, Irish-inflicted song that kicks off this high-spirited, energetic and warm-hearted musical. There is enormous charm in this show, which depicts about how the people of a small town opened their hearts and homes to visitors from around the globe. We get to know both individual townspeople and passengers and crew. The ensemble cast play various roles, both the towns people and the cast and crew of the grounded planes, which the play subtly uses to underline their common humanity. The locals story is built around a few characters, particularly the mayor of Gander, its police chief, a teacher, a young journalist and head of he local animal shelter. Not only did the passengers arrive with little luggage, as suitcase remained in the hold, but with both babies and pets. It took the whole village, and surrounding towns, to care for them but they did. The experience left a lasting impression on their hearts, and the whole world about true kindness and hospitality.
Instead of telling the story from the viewpoint of the passengers arriving as many plays would, COME FROM AWAY takes the viewpoint of both townspeople and visitors, switching viewpoint back and forth throughout. The people of Gander first hear of the shocking events of 9/11 on their TVs and then learn they must scramble to accommodate the passengers and crew diverted there. They not only welcome the visitors come from away into their homes but break the news to them about 9/11, with warmth and support.
Twelve actors play all the roles, generally taking parts of both locals and visitors but all playing multiple roles. Some of the characters in the musical are based on real people, while others are composites inspired by several stories. Among those based on real people are Captain Beverly Bass (Becky Gulsvig, who also plays local Annette), the first female airplane captain for American Airlines, couple Kevin Tuerff (Andrew Samonsky, who also plays local Garth) and Kevin Jung (Nick Duckart, also passenger Ali) from Los Angeles, and a Brit named Nick (Chamblee Ferguson, who also plays Doug) and a Texan named Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) who meet on the plane. Other real characters are Gander’s mayor Claude Elliott (Kevin Carolan) and constable Oz Fudge (Harter Clingman). Other major characters include Bonnie (Megan McGinnis), a mother and head of the local animal shelter, Janice (Emily Walton) the town’s newbie reporter, and Bob (James Earl Jones II), an African American New Yorker who is skeptical of the locals’ friendliness and generosity at first. Gander teacher Beulah (Julie Johnson) forms a special bond with Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), an African American woman worried about her son, a NYC firefighter. The ensemble take various other roles, until it seems like a hundred people on stage, yet each character is so well drawn that we are never confused about who is who.
There is an Irish music vibe to the score, with several catchy tunes. The music is as high energy as the production itself. The music is more integrated into the story, which might remind some audience members of the musical “Once.” The story proceeds briskly, combining both individual stories with the general sweep of events, but take the time to find moments that tug at the heart.
Unlike most big Broadway productions now, COME FROM AWAY uses a single, simple multi-purpose set that doesn’t move, apart from a turntable in the center of the stage, which means that even small theater groups could stage it. There is a certain appeal, given the universal human message it coveys. The transformation to various locations are accomplished with a few props and a little lighting changes, like the appearance of a neon “Molson” beer sign for the scenes in a local watering holes. This is small town life, so meeting take place in the local donut shop (Tim Horton’s, of course – this is Canada after all), the school, the hockey rink.
COME FROM AWAY is a delightful, inspiring show that no one should miss. It runs through May 26 at the Fabulous Fox Theater.
© Cate Marquis