One thing is certain about this new musical, now on Broadway at The Schoenfeld Theatre – it had the youngsters in the audience hooting and hollering and having themselves a fine time from start to finish. There must have been over a hundred of them in the balcony, bussed in from school for what was probably their first or second exposure ever to a Broadway musical. The show had constant hints in it of the musicals of the so-called Golden Age when scores contained soul stirring music and lyrics, when there was a certain order to the stories being told, when usually a central character or two journeyed through two acts in 2 l/2 hours, and those of us weened on that sort of stuff wandered out into the slush of winter or the steam of summer energized and filled with memories that would stay with us for a lifetime. Book, music, and lyric writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein have given us a 100-minute, one-act ensemble piece from a real source – days that deserve to be remembered – and Come From Away is their contribution to that cause.
Things are different now of course and that’s only to be expected. What remains is the devotion, the passion of a new generation living in a very different world, therefore attracted to very different stimuli. Here for example is a documentary sort of show dealing with the very real happenings in Gander, Newfoundland, on the dreadful 5 days that followed the 9/11 destruction of the twin trade towers in New York City, and the redeployment of some 7,000 people whose planes from Europe were rerouted to make emergency landings in Newfoundland because all airports in New York were closed to traffic while the attack was investigated.
Come From Away begins with twenty actors, led by the Mayor of Gander, inviting us in via “Welcome To The Rock,” which they belt out again and again as they introduce us to themselves. They are an assortment of decent and caring people who have made an attractive way of life in a remote part of the globe, which has only welcomed strangers in the past when they stopped to refuel their planes on their way to somewhere else.
There were only about 7,000 inhabitants of Gander in 2001, and the forced entry of 7,000 more naturally caused confusion, disturbance, and a test for the natives, one which they passed superbly in the days ahead. Songs about blankets and bedding, darkness and trees, costumes and customs follow in rapid succession; and through them we come to know a gay couple, an African American mother, the female American Airlines pilot who brought them all to Gander. At first, they don’t know why they are there, but as the grim facts become clear, we get to know many of them. It is interesting to watch the mixing of cultures, religions, ideologies, attitudes, for immigrants had long since stopped coming in numbers to this giant rock of an island and by 2001, the early settlers were a fairly homogenous group. In the several days that these frightened guests have to desperately try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to get news from home, relationships are formed.
An English bachelor and an American widow connect, the gay couple discovers the never before discussed reasons for their partnership to work, and so it goes with virtually everyone on board the flight as well as the natives they connect with.
Under Christopher Ashley’s non-stop direction, the stage is constantly in motion, which is useful in that it keeps the energy high, but distracting in that it never stops long enough for us to get to know anyone very well. I had the feeling I was being tweeted all through the musical, with one character or another moving quickly center stage to offer a comment, a joke, a rejoinder, or a conclusion. A character called “Hannah” (beautifully played by Q. Smith) stops long enough to sing about her missing son, reaching out to him with “I Am Here,” a haunting and tender glimpse into the kind of loving mother that she is. Jenn Colella who plays the American Airlines captain, one of the first women to hold that position, sings of her love for aviation from the time she was seven in “Me And The Sky.” Everybody gets a chance to take stage for a moment or two, but the general effect is of a whole town interacting with a planeload of strangers, always at a frenetic pace.
Taken all together, it works. It has a decency about it that is sadly missing in almost all contemporary writing. They not only give us clearly defined natives on Newfoundland in the opening minutes, but they transform themselves again and again throughout the evening to play the visitors as well. Mind you, I am trying to convey to you the joy I had in hearing a musical that is totally contemporary spreading as much joy and esprit as this one does.
The set design of Beowulf Boritt is asked to render so much of Gander that it must suffice with a basic set that seems right but frankly is mostly unobtrusive; and with so many twitters to hurl, that’s probably the right approach. Gareth Owen’s sound design was extremely loud and I had a difficult time deciphering many of the lyrics.
The costumes of Toni-Leslie James are appropriate and easy to change as the actors move from one character to another. The lighting of Howell Binkley makes keeping track of dozens of people easy to do.
Come From Away is an important show for our troubled times. We need honestly drawn stories of hope and good will to come from the stage, and they have been sadly lacking in recent seasons. The dystopia of Wallace Shawn’s recent An Evening at The Talk House, the darkness and despair, even in its humor, of If I Forget, the sadness in Gravedigger’s Lullaby, all written with insight and compassion for their characters. They and others in recent seasons have given short shrift to the finer things buried in most of us, so it’s refreshing to have on the boards something as exuberant as Come From Away.
I hope this excellent company finds a vast audience willing to take a chance on a well earned happy ending, just for a change.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Review: ‘Come From Away’ at Ford’s Theatre by David Gerson on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Magic Time! ‘Come From Away’ at Ford’s Theatre: A show on its way to Broadway that’s so moving and inspiring I would see it again in a heartbeat by John Stoltenberg.