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COME FROM AWAY Musical at Fox Theater Review

When 9/11 happened, the whole world was in shock but amid all the horror, tales of bravery and kindness also emerged. One of those was about 7000 stranded airline passengers diverted to Newfoundland, Canada, after American airspace was shut down, who found unexpected kindness from the people of small town Gander. The people on the planes were in the dark about what had happened and frightened and nervous when they finally were allowed off their planes, but they found a surprising greeting, as these strangers were welcomed warmly by the town’s people. “Come From Away” is the hit Broadway musical based on these real events, on 9/11 and days after, and the real people of Newfoundland, as it tells the true tale of how the people in a tiny Canadian community opened their homes and hearts to stranded strangers who “come from away.”

The Tony-winning “Come From Away” was one of the best shows of the Fox’s 2018-2019 season when it first played here. Now this wonderful musical returns to the Fox stage for a too-short run, Nov. 3-5. This time, the lively, often funny, music-filled crowd-pleaser “Come From Away” brought audiences to their feet with thunderous applause at its close on opening night, Nov. 3.

The one-act play, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is performed without intermission and is fairly short. The story covers the few days the 7000 stranded passengers were in Newfoundland, particularly the town of Gander where the airport is located, plus a coda the follows up on individual stories and what happened after the visitors left.

Although the 9/11 tragedy sparked this story, this is a play about kindness and human connections, as these real-life people responded to selflessly help others. The show is filled with warmth, heart and surprisingly funny, suiting the quirky nature of the people of Newfoundland and the little town Gander where the airport is located.

“Come from away” is the term the people of Gander use for newcomers. For decades, Gander had welcomed airline passengers flying in from Europe and points east, as the first refueling stop on this side of the Atlantic. The locals in Gander developed a special name for these oversea visitors, who they describe as having “come from away.” Bigger jets with more fuel capacity had changed this once-required stopover into more of a flyover.

Yet their little-used airport suddenly sprung to life, when planes flying west over the Atlantic suddenly needed to land in the immediate wake of 9/11. Lots of planes. With 7000 passengers from all over the globe, doubling the population of the town.

The town embraces the travelers who have come from away in a collective hug, gives them food and shelter, and lifts their spirits with music, kindness and laughter. Enduring friendships are formed, romance blooms, and people and relationships are changed. Its story of human kindness resonates even today.

Music is a big part but the songs are simple and straightforward, without bit production numbers. Much of the music is Irish-flavored and the humor reflects the unique character of this small town.

The tiny town sprung into action, partly because the people there wanted to feel like they were doing something, after seeing the planes hit the twin towers in New York. They organized places for “come from away” visitors to stay, and food, water, blankets, clothes, even diapers.

The passengers arrive confused and wary, but are quickly engulfed by people who want to help. The passengers need to know what happened, since they had no access to TV and cell phones were still rare in in 2001, so TV’s were brought out. The passengers needed to phone home, so banks of phones were set up. All by the good-hearted people of Gander.

Then they started just welcoming passengers into their homes, allowing the strangers to stay in their guest rooms and share their bathrooms and eat and drink with them. Once the Irish whiskey started to flow and the musical instruments emerged, the town’s fun-loving nature came out to throw an arm around the shoulders of those come from away.

Only twelve actors play all the roles in “Come From Away,” both the townspeople and the stranded passengers, on a single set that serves as everything from the plane’s interior to the school gym to homes and the pub. Every actors plays multiple roles, even those playing leading characters.

Among those lead characters are Gander townsfolk, including mayor Claude (Andrew Hendrick) and policeman Oz (Danny Arnold) who have to set aside small town squabbles, like a strike by bus drivers, to respond to the sudden influx of 38 planes. Ensemble songs “Welcome to the Rock” and “38 Planes” give us the picture of their mad scramble.

Reporter Janice (Hannah Kato) suddenly finds herself in the spotlight as a news source for those off-island as well as on, instead of chasing little stories in Gander. Teacher Beulah (Kristin Litzenberg) finds herself and her school pressed into service as the biggest space to house the 7000 stranded strangers, with another ensemble song “Blankets and Bedding” painting the picture. Local SPCA head Bonnie (Kathleen Cameron) thinks of what others haven’t, that there are animals in the planes’ cargo holds who need food, water and care as well, and she leaps into action to handle that herself.

The passengers on one plane are calmed by American Airlines pilot Captain Beverly Bass (Addison Garner). Garner also plays school librarian Annette, but pilot Beverly is her most significant part, playing the first female captain of a commercial airline, which Captain Beverly Bass describes in her song “Me and the Sky” later in the show. Among the passengers are a gay couple, both named Kevin. Trey DeLuna plays Kevin J., and also a Middle Eastern Muslim traveler named Ali. Shawn W. Smith plays Kevin T., and a Gander local Garth. The Kevins’ story is one the major running threads in the play.

Stanton Morales plays a British traveler named Nick, headed to Texas for a business conference, and Molly Samson plays Texan traveler Diane on her way home from Paris, who find a connection. African American New Yorker Bob (Jason Tyler Smith) has his world view changed by the people of Gander, and Hannah (Candace Alyssa Rhodes), the worried mother of a NYC firefighter, forms a bond with Beulah, who is also the mother of a firefighter.

The songs in “Come From Away” allow characters to tell us about themselves or their town, and are presented in a simple and straightforward fashion that does not weigh-down the story’s flow with big production numbers.

The play’s best musical highlight comes late in the one-act show, when everyone gathers for a cook-out with a band playing Irish music, and lively dancing.

As short as it is, “Come From Away” packs an irresistible energy and a big emotional punch around its human connections, and a surprising amount of laughter – for the audience and the characters. The experience turns tragedy into a flood of human warmth and kindness, and leaves a lasting fondness.

That feeling, of human warmth, music and laughter, envelopes the audience as well as the characters. While St. Louis audiences are famous for standing up at the end of the show, the wild enthusiasm and rousing, sustained applause on opening night showed the audience’s true delight in this excellent production.

“Come From Away” is a delightful, inspiring show that no one should miss during it’s short run, Nov. 3-5 at the Fabulous Fox Theater.

© Cate Marquis