by Lynn on November 24, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Choreographed by Kelly Devine
Musical director, Ian Eisendrath
Set by Beowulf Boritt
Costumes by Toni-Leslie James
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Gareth Owen
Cast: Petrina Bromley
Geno Carr
Jenn Colella
Joel Hatch
Rodney Hicks
Kendra Kassebaum
Chad Kimball
Lee MacDougall
Caesar Samayoa
Q. Smith
Astrid Van Wieren
Sharon Wheatley

Moving, joyful, throbbing with life, kindness and the decency of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, and environs who opened their homes and hearts to 7,000 strangers who ‘came from away’, when all hell broke loose in New York on 9/11, 2001.

The Story. When the two planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the airspace over the United States was shut down to all incoming and outgoing planes. The hundreds of planes in the air flying to the States from other destinations had to land somewhere. Many landed in Canadian cities. Thirty-eight of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland.

Gander was once a main airport for transatlantic flights that needed to refuel. With modern planes that can make that journey on one tank of gas refuelling was not necessary. Gander was now a city used to receiving about six planes a day, until that fateful day in September. There were 7,000 passengers on those 38 planes. The population of Gander at that time was 9,000 which meant their numbers swelled to 16,000.

For the next five days the people of Gander and the surrounding towns welcomed, fed, arranged for the sleeping, showering, entertaining and caring for the people who ‘came from away,’ as the Newfoundlanders describe them. Over those five days the passengers went from being frightened about not knowing where they were or why to shedding their fearfulness for the most part and settling in with these quirky, kind Gander, Newfoundlanders until they could go home. Every single person involved had a story. >Come From Away covers a few of them and each one squeezes your heart or buoys your spirits and faith in people to do good in a catastrophe.

The Production. Come From Away is an ensemble piece. There are few star musical turns because it is collectively about the people who take these strangers in and the grateful passengers easing into being there.

There is a constant pulse and throb of the lively songs of Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
The music captures the flavour of Newfoundland (“Welcome to the Rock.”); the sheer sense of being overwhelmed by what is happening to this community (“38 Planes”); the realization of what’s happened to these people who have ‘come from away’ (“Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere”); and even a personal reflection by the (woman) Captain of one of the planes (“Me and the Sky”).

Director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine keep that pace moving with a sense of foot-stomping urgency–how else would you describe it when these communities seem to go sleepless for the whole five days, constantly seeing that their guests are tended to and comfortable. While there is a constant swirl of activity, it’s not distracting, rather it’s embracing.

Beowulf Boritt’s set is simple and evocative of that rough place—a few trees at the sides, a few tables and many mismatched chairs that create a plane, buses, a Tim Horton’s, and various kitchens, among others.

The ensemble from top to bottom is wonderful, a bounty of riches. Petrina Bromley plays Bonnie (and others) who works for the ASPCA and is concerned about the animals on the plane. With resolve and determination she tends those critters with grace and compassion. Ms Bromley is also the only Newfoundlander in the cast and I’m sure she’s giving lessons in getting the accent just right. Astrid Van Wieren plays Beulah (and others) who works for one of the schools and is a tireless organizer and comforter. Beulah knows how to show compassion for a person alone and perhaps lonely and it comes out in Van Wieren’s beautiful performance. Jenn Colella as Beverley (the Captain) and others is spunky, commanding and bats her high notes into the stratosphere. Joel Hatch plays Claude (among others), the folksy, engaging Mayor of Gander. They all have their individual turns, but together they form a dream of an ensemble.

Comment. Irene Sankoff and David Hein, partners in life and in creating this show, did hundreds of interviews of the people of Gander and the passengers. They distilled the stories down showing a cross section of people, experiences, and relationships that formed. Their book is full of the wit and humour of those Newfoundlanders and of the diversity of the people who landed there. Sankoff and Hein have captured the quirky (that word again) traditions that embrace those who ‘come from away’ into being honorary Newfoundlanders (Kiss a cod? Really?) And without getting sentimental they capture the no-nonsense kindness of the hosts and how the guests then took that away with them and passed it on when they got home.

Sankoff and Hein do not shy away from the thorny issues of race. A Muslim man is looked on with suspicion by the passengers when they land in Gander and treated with the same suspicion and even a threat of violence when they are about to leave. If I have a quibble it’s that the resolution of this issue of possible violence at the end seems inadequate. We don’t really know how it is resolved.

What is not in question is that Come From Away is a healing musical for our troubled times. Without affectation or overstatement we see the true face of kindness and selflessness when the people of Gander and environs opened their hearts and took in 7,000 frightened strangers from away and made them feel welcome and safe.

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Nov. 23, 2016.
Closes: Jan. 8, 2017.
Cast: 12: 6 men, 6 women
Running Time: 100 minutes.

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