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BWW Review: Exhilarating New Musical COME FROM AWAY Celebrates The Helpers

"Look for the helpers," FrEd Rogers would say. "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

BWW Review: Exhilarating New Musical COME FROM AWAY Celebrates The Helpers
Jenn Colella and Company
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

COME FROM AWAY, the inspiring, funny and kick-ass beautiful new musical serving as the Broadway debut for the married team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who co-authored the book and score, takes a true story that began on September 11th, 2001, and tells it in an exhilarating fashion that celebrates decency and human kindness.

The helpers of Come From Away were not in a position to risk their lives on that tragic day, but they were given the opportunity to open their hearts and, as dramatized on the Schoenfeld stage, they gloriously did so.

Sung by the musical's twelve member ensemble of actors, the opening "Welcome To The Rock" explains that the tiny Newfoundland community of Gander is "the farthest place you'll get from Disneyland" with "the wildest weather that you've ever heard of."

Gander also wound up with one of the world's largest airports; a popular stop for planes crossing the Atlantic to refuel before jet engines made the destination obsolete.

Though plans to close the seldom-used facility have often been proposed, the airport's oversized landing strip became a necessity on the morning of 9/11, when American airspace was suddenly closed and every plane in flight was ordered to land.

38 planes carrying a total of over 7,000 people from across American and around the world landed in Gander that morning. Most of them wouldn't know why their trip was interrupted until the next day.

Led by Mayor Claude Elliot (lovably crusty Joel Hatch), the population doesn't hesitate to set up shelter spaces, donate food, clothing and other essentials, and do whatever is possible to make their frightened visitors comfortable until their planes can be airborne again.

Each cast member plays one primary role and an assortment of smaller ones, as the story shifts from the experiences of the passengers to the efforts of the locals until both populations are blended. Director Christopher Ashley's production seamlessly moves from tense moments to humorous ones to unabashedly joyous ones, utilizing little more than twelve chairs and simple costume pieces to help actors switch characters.

Individual stories emerge. Kendra Kassebaum plays a young television news reporter who had no way of knowing her first day on the job would be so eventful. Q. Smith plays Hannah, the mother of a New York City firefighter, who is befriended and comforted by local Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren) as she attempts to find out if her son is alive.

BWW Review: Exhilarating New Musical COME FROM AWAY Celebrates The Helpers
Foreground: Jenn Colella, Sharon Wheatley,
Lee MacDougall and Kendra Kassebaum
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Petrina Bromley plays the fearless head of the Gander SPCA. Though each grounded plane is declared off-limits until it can determined whether or not it contains explosives, she, with the help of her husband (Lee MacDougall), sets out to rescue all the animals trapped inside.

MacDougall also plays an English businessman who unexpectedly becomes romantically involved with a Texas divorcee (Sharon Wheatley) as the experience teaches them that, even in their 50s, they can still let loose once in a while.

Caesar Samayoa and Chad Kimball play a couple, both named Kevin, concerned about how open they can be about their relationship in this unfamiliar community. Their story leads to the creation of the Pay It Forward Foundation. Rodney Hicks plays a black man from New York who, accustomed to being looked at with suspicion by white people, is confused and amazed by the generosity and trust he experiences. However, the authors also approach situations where others, because of their ethnicity, are suddenly looked upon with suspicion.

Broadway favorite Jenn Colella plays the best role of her New York career, and gives a sensational performance as Beverly Bass, who was American Airlines' first female pilot. Her fierce gutsy belting and gritty acting positively soar with "Me And The Sky," a song that chronicles Bass' lifetime of glass ceiling shattering as she aimed for the career she wanted. The number would surely receive a cheering ovation if it ended with a final button, but Come From Away is composed in a manner that allows applause only after two songs, both full company numbers, keeping the focus on the community as a whole.

Orchestrated by August Eriksmoen, and played by conductor Ian Eisendrath's eight-member ensemble, the rousing score is highlighted by a spirited Irish twang.

As a theatre critic, I'm often asked by people I meet for recommendations. Before answering, I always ask what kind of plays or musicals they usually like, so I can match them up with something they'd more likely enjoy. As long as Come From Away is playing on Broadway, I will recommend it to everyone. Everyone.

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