Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
The folks of Gander, a small town on the rocky island of Newfoundland perched on the north eastern tip of Canada, deserve a lot more than five stars for hospitality, geniality and an all-around human goodness.
All that came to the fore in the wake of the horrendous terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, on 11 September, 2001. The story is told in both convincing and exhilarating theatrical terms in Come from Away, a new musical that has landed on Broadway after development in Canada and stops in various spots around the US.
The term ‘come from away’ denotes people not born on Newfoundland. Gander and several surrounding towns found themselves loaded with them on 11 September, due to diverted passenger plane landings at the Gander airport when air traffic over North America was shut down.
Gander, with a population of 9,000, was faced with feeding and sheltering some 6,500 strangers from a mix of countries. How they did it, the friendships that were formed, and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tragedy are vividly demonstrated during the show’s non-stop race through some 100 minutes.
The book, music and lyrics are the inspired work of a Canadian married writing team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein. With a cast of 12 backed by eight musicians, the production, for a Broadway musical, is relatively small-scale. The musicians are divided into two groups situated on the far sides of the stage. The set consists mainly of chairs – which stand in for planes, landscapes and just about everything else – and a couple of clusters of tree trunks for atmosphere. But all of it is managed with big-time ingenuity by director Christopher Ashley and musical stager Kelly Devine.
Story theatre techniques are used to the nth degree. The performers switch characters, from townspeople to passengers and back again, at the drop of a hat – or the putting on of a hat or other piece of clothing.
Bits of narrative information are dropped into the dialogue or into the musical numbers. With data being thrown at you from all parts of the stage, it can be a little confusing at the start as to who’s who and what’s what. But the show quickly catches you up in its storytelling and sheer energy.
A lot of that energy emanates from the Celtic-flavoured score, reflecting the island’s Irish roots. With an emphasis on ensemble numbers, the music pulsates with an urgent beat, while the lyrics tie in closely with plot.
Principal characters emerging from the panorama include Beverley, a female pilot, the first to captain for American Airlines. In one of the show’s few fully sustained solos, ‘Me and the Sky’, she tells of her struggle to gain respect in her profession.
As portrayed by Jenn Colella, she’s exactly the kind of person you want to see walk into a cockpit when you’re travelling by air. When she takes off her pilot jacket and cap, Colella becomes Annette, a teacher at the Gander school. And just like the rest of the cast, Colella, no matter who she’s playing or what she’s doing, remains fully committed to every moment of the show.
Caesar Samayoa and Chad Kimball play two passengers, both named Kevin. They’re a gay couple whose banter is lively and whose relationship becomes seriously strained during the Gander stay.
Quite adroitly, Samayoa also plays Ali, a Muslim passenger whose presence ignites some tension, while Kimball doubles as Garth, the head of the union representing Gander’s striking bus drivers. (They, of course, go back to work to help drive the stranded passengers around.)
Lee MacDougall nimbly turns accents on and off as Nick, an English oil engineer on his way to a business meeting, and as Doug, a Gander air traffic controller. With planes no longer flying, Doug helps his wife Bonnie (Petrina Bromley), an animal activist, care for the non-human passengers.
Nick, a rather strait-laced bachelor, becomes unlaced when he meets Diane (Sharon Wheatley), a divorcee from Texas. The two share a lovely ballad together called ‘Stop the World’ (no relation to Anthony Newley) as they stroll along the Newfoundland seashore.
Rodney Hicks garners solid laughs as both a cynical New Yorker initially wary of his hosts’ motivations and an airline pilot with overly suave lady-killer demeanour; while Joel Hatch, among various characterisations, exudes benevolent authority as the Gander mayor.
There are indeed a lot of upbeat goings-on as the townspeople scurry about to provide for and entertain their unexpected guests, who during their three-day stay, eventually and happily become ingratiated into the local society.
But the darker side of the events is hardly ignored. As the passengers late in the show fly into a stunned New York, where the destroyed twin towers continue to smolder, an ensemble number ‘Something’s Missing’ compellingly evokes the mood.
Also poignant is Q Smith’s portrayal of Hannah, a passenger worried about the fate of her son, a New York fire-fighter. Smith’s rich vocal talent is shown off in the number ‘I Am Here’, an attempt to telephone her son.
Hannah finds some support from a local civic leader, Beulah, also the mother of a fire-fighter, played with sympathetic aplomb by Astrid Van Wieren.
Auspiciously rounding out the cast are Kendra Kassebaum, convincingly bouncing from a novice reporter on local TV to an assured flight attendant, and Geno Carr as the constable of the town’s two-person police force and a passenger rabbi who sets up a kosher kitchen.
After the curtain calls, the musicians take stage for a rousing round of exit music that may well inspire you to plan a trip to Gander. That is, if you hadn’t decided to do so already.
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