BWW REVIEW: COME FROM AWAY, A Powerful Expression Of The Capacity For Human Kindness Opens In Melbourne
Thursday 18th July 2019, 7pm, Comedy Theatre Melbourne (Industry Preview)
COME FROM AWAY, Irene Sankoff and David Hein's (Book, Music and Lyrics) multi award winning musical about the other side of the 9/11 story, has captivated Melbourne hearts in its beautiful heartwarming celebration of the best of the human spirit. Brilliant music, clever lyrics and heartfelt characterizations come together for an uplifting, hilarious and emotional expression of the true stories of the people of Gander Newfoundland and the "Plane People".
Whilst much of the world watched the constant news feed as the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were unfolding and probably were aware that US airspace was closed to all aircraft, the strategy that Canada implemented to handle the aircraft that needed to be diverted was potentially less well known. Canada implemented Operation Yellow Ribbon, a strategy to help divert aircraft, which had to also be considered as potential threats, away from potential major targets, if at all possible. The relatively small Gander International Airport on the remote island of Newfoundland, North East Canada was the closest landfall for incoming transatlantic flights and accepted 38 of the over 200 flights that were diverted to ports across Canada, the second highest number of aircraft diverted into any airport behind Halifax and greater than Vancouver. There were 6579 passengers and crew on the aircraft (plus 19 animals) and they would soon cause the town's population of 10,000 to nearly double over night but it is the townsfolk of Gander's welcoming hospitality and resilience that caught the attention of producer Michael Rubinoff who eventually engaged Sankoff and Hein to create Come From Away. Based on interviews with locals and "Come From Aways" as the "Plane People" were dubbed, Come From Away is a blend of the personal stories with many of the characters names drawn from real people, a number of whom were in the audience on the Preview night, making this work even more powerful.
Directed by Christopher Ashley with Musical staging by Kelly Devine, Come From Away has a beautiful Brechtian simplicity that allows the stories to be the focus of the 100 minutes of theatre. Beowulf Boritt's staging creates a simple rustic aesthetic featuring the trees of the forest, faintly whitewashed timber walls and an assortment of wooden chairs and tables. The slatted wall works in with Howell Binkley's lighting design to allow backlight to shine through or he assortment of lights hung off the tree trunks to express the passage of time through the days with bright washes of daylight to the warmth of sun rise and sunset and the starlit darkness of night, dappled by the remnants of paint giving the illusion of clouds. Toni-Leslie James' costuming is equally simple with casual street clothes to represent that the people of Gander and the "Plane People" were really just normal people. The casual change of a top or addition of a hat, when paired with the performers shift in physicality and accent is all it takes to allow 12 performers to take on a variety of characters.
The music and lyrics along with the choreography are heavily influenced by Newfoundland's strong traditional Irish influence to create a warm, welcoming expression of the Newfoundlanders' hospitality and spirit. The 9-piece band, led by Musical Director Luke Hunter, are situated on stage, scattered as part of the background whilst also giving the work a pub gig feel and enabling musicians to join the unfolding story at moments like In The Bar/Heave Away which leads into Screech In. Sankoff and Hein's lyrics are brilliant in their detail and ability to elicit heartfelt emotion from laughter to tears (yes bring tissues). The Lyrics and the Book create detailed images in the audiences' imagination further supporting the simplicity of the aesthetic design. They have woven a theme of variations on lyrics plus an underlying percussive beat to tie the work together and create a textured flow of the storyline.
A strong Australian and American cast has been gathered for the work. They maintain the energy throughout the performance whilst ensuring that the nuanced expression of shifting emotion is conveyed. Nicholas Brown and Douglas Hansell deliver wonderfully camp expressions of the gay couple of Kevin J and Kevin T, whilst Nathan Carter has a delightful awkwardness as the socially inept English business man Nick, and Kolby Kindle expresses African American New Yorker Bob with a blend of confidence and confusion at the unprejudiced hospitality shown to him. Kellie Rode ensures that animal shelter worker Bonnie has a single-minded energy while Sarah Morrison captures new reporter Janice's innocence and overwhelmed response to her first day at work and Emma Powell gives teacher Beulah as wonderfully grounded stability to the care of the people at the school shelter. For the night reviewed Angela Kennedy stepped into the role of Texan mother Diane, filling in for Katrina Retallick.
The stand out performance however comes from Zoe Gertz who takes on the role Annette, the chirpy young Gander local and more significantly, Beverley, an amalgam of the pilots diverted to Gander with particular focus on the story of Captain Beverley Bass, the first female captain for American Airlines who was piloting a Boeing 777 from Paris to Dallas, in the incredibly moving Me And The Sky. Gertz's vocals are rich and solid in all of her pieces and for Me And The Sky she captures the heartbreaking emotional shift from the joy and pride of battling away against the patriarchy to achieve her dream to the shock and 'grief' at realizing what the terrorist action meant for her industry. As Beverley repeats throughout the story "I'm fine Tom" on the phone calls to her husband, Gertz ensures that it is subtly clear that Beverly knows she needs to maintain the stoic bravery of a captain, setting an example for her crew regardless of her own fears.
COME FROM AWAY is a brilliant musical that shows the good side of humanity that shone through at one of the modern world's darkest time but refreshingly Sankoff and Hein have been careful to not ignore the darker side of what the Plane People and the Newfoundlanders experienced as they were providing refuge to the stranded passengers. They show the contrast between the people of Gander's selfless and non-judgmental kindness and the racism that people still exhibited even when surrounded by goodness as Muslim passengers are treated with hate and fear as, particularly American passengers, forget that Americans can also be Muslim. The difference is also seen through the Kevins' unnecessary fear that the people of Gander will vilify them for their sexuality and Bob's bewildered surprise that townsfolk happily help him "steal" their barbeques for a cook up rather than accuse him because he's African American.
With most audiences able to remember the horror of September 11 2001, Come From Away is a wonderful antidote to the fear and terror that has seeped into society since that day. It is an honest expression of how good people can be if they come together to care for each other rather than feeding fear, distrust and division, something that many political leaders are trying to do of late. This is moving in so many ways and shows the power of people, from strong women, strong communities and a society that values care, compassion and inclusion. Do not miss this amazing piece of theatre.
COME FROM AWAY
Photos: Jeff Busby