BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY Soars at Boston's Opera House
COME FROM AWAY, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical warming Boston audiences now through November 17, is just the uplifting human tonic we need during these difficult and divided times. Charming, witty, heart-breaking but ultimately inspiring, COME FROM AWAY is the remarkable story of the 9000 Newfoundlanders who welcomed 7000 strangers with open hearts and open arms when 38 planes from around the globe were suddenly diverted to their airport in Gander on September 11, 2001. The opening number is a rousing Celtic-influenced "Welcome to the Rock," and it couldn't be a more apt introduction to the people, the spirit, and the comfort that greeted terrified passengers from 95 different countries stranded "in the middle of nowhere" on their way from one corner of the world to another.
Canadian writers and composers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, along with Tony Award-winning director Christopher Ashley, have managed to distill countless people and stories into a manageable 16 main characters who narrate the events of the six days and nights they shared waiting and wondering if America would ever be the same after terrorists flew three commercial airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A fourth plane, United Flight 93, crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside when passengers disarmed the hijackers and attempted to regain control.
Images of that fateful day are burned into The Collective Unconscious, and the lives of victims, their families, and first responders have been changed forever. So, too, have the ways in which we fly all over the world. But COME FROM AWAY looks at the tragedy of 9-11 from a different perspective, focusing not on the horror and the rubble but on the indomitable spirit and simple power of kindness and compassion that enable us to rebuild and move on. The community of Gander epitomizes what's right in this world and COME FROM AWAY captures that human connection beautifully.
An even dozen cast members do yeoman's work doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling roles, underscoring the commonalities shared by people of different nationalities, cultures, races, religions, genders, ethnicities, and sexuality. Food, music, and a fair amount of alcohol are the bonding agents that help the locals ease the fears and the tensions of the plane people as they await word of loved ones and plan what to do once they are finally cleared for takeoff again. A few involuntary visitors even become honorary Newfoundlanders during a raucous "Screech In" ceremony in which they drink a local brew and boldly "kiss the fish." No one ever said living on the rock was easy!
Central characters are Gander's affable mayor Claude (Kevin Carolan), an unassuming but 100% dependable leader who keeps the townspeople focused on the essentials as chaos swirls around them, and Captain Beverley Bass (Marika Aubrey), the first ever female American Airlines captain who got the call to land her Jumbo Jet in Gander en route from Paris to Dallas. (The real-life Mayor Claude and Captain Bass were greeted with a lengthy and loving standing ovation when they entered the stage on press night for a post-show discussion).
Bass's storyline is particularly poignant and is capped off with the one true bona fide hit song from the score, "Me and the Sky." In it she recounts her rise from a little girl with a dream to a pilot working her way up the ranks in a profession heretofore dominated by World War II vets. But eventually the vets retire, and Bass flies higher and higher, breaking the glass ceiling for herself and other women pilots to follow. At last nothing comes between her and the sky - until, incomprehensibly, terrorists do. In a flash "Me and the Sky" moves from celebration to shocker, and performing as Bass, Aubrey is stunning.
Other stories involve the gay couple Kevin T (Brandon Springman) and Kevin J (Nick Duckart), a boss and secretary who discover how very differently they respond to tragedy and change. Whereas Kevin T makes the best of a bad situation by embracing the community of new friends, Kevin J retreats, choosing to suffer alone. Hannah (Amelia Cormack) finds comfort confiding in Beulah (Julie Johnson), a local who helps Hannah get through one day after another not knowing if her son, a member of NYPD Rescue 2, has survived. Janice (Julia Knite) is a fledgling TV reporter thrust onto the world stage on her very first day of work. Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh) is the SPCA volunteer who relentlessly defies orders to care for the animals quarantined in the cargo holds. Oz (Harter Clingman) is the local school bus union leader who puts a strike on pause in order to shuttle the 7000 plane people to shelters, motels, and private homes within a 20-mile radius of the airport.
Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) are the Texas divorcee and nerdy British bachelor who make an impetuous love connection under the most improbable of circumstances. Ali (Nick Duckart) is a Muslim professional and family man suddenly wary of how others view him, and Bob (James Earl Jones II), a young African American, can't get over the fact that neither crime, nor the color of his skin, seems to be an issue in the remote town of Appleton where he's transported.
Through stories and song performed in one act without intermission, COME FROM AWAY is remarkably successful at bringing the audience onto the planes and into Gander. "38 Planes" leads the townspeople from bewilderment to determination as they spring into action gathering "Blankets and Bedding" for the arrivals that have doubled their population in an instant. "28 Hours/Wherever We Are" expresses the fear and anguish of passengers stuck on the tarmac until planes and people can be swept for weapons and bombs, just in case more terror is planned. Once officials are given the all clear, guests are finally bussed through "Darkness and Trees" to unknown destinations without any of their luggage or personal belongings. Completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers, they turn to information gathering and "Prayer" to ground themselves while "On the Edge."
An eight-piece band, often onstage, infuses the score with Celtic folk rhythms and sea shanty motifs that fix the action in the very specific culture of the islanders. Beowulf Boritt's set of wooden plank flooring, barn board walls, and robust tree trunks convey the hardscrabble nature of life in this part of Newfoundland while Toni-Leslie James' earthy costumes suggest the casual comfort of airplane travel contrasted against the hardier woven clothing of everyday life in a harsh clime.
COME FROM AWAY is a breath of fresh air fusing humor and pathos within a story that is almost too astounding to be believed. It reminds us with overwhelming good will that simple acts of kindness and compassion can end up being heroic and life changing. It also reminds us that when we pull together, we have the power to overcome unbearable darkness. Mayor Claude says he believes in America. May he be an inspiration to us all.
(Photos from First North American Tour by Matthew Murphy)
Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein; directed by Christopher Ashley; musical staging, Kelly Devine; music supervision, Ian Eisendrath; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costume design, Toni-Leslie James; lighting design, Howell Binkley; sound design, Gareth Owen; orchestrations, August Eriksmoen; arrangements, Ian Eisendrath; music coordinator, David Lai; hair design, David Brian Brown; dialect coach, Joel Goldes; production stage manager, Shawn Pennington
Performances and Tickets:
Now through November 17, Citizens Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; tickets start at $44.50 and are available at the Box Office, online at www.BroadwayInBoston.com or by calling Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787.
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Bonnie and others, Sharone Sayegh; Oz and others, Harter Clingman; Beverley/Annette and others, Marika Aubrey; Janice and others, Julia Knitel; Bob and others, James Earl Jones II; Claude and others, Kevin Carolan; Kevin T./Garth and others, Andrew Samonsky (Bradon Springman at the press performance); Nick/Doug and others, Chamblee Ferguson; Kevin J./Ali and others, Nick Duckart; Hannah and others, Danielle K. Thomas (Amelia Cormack at the press performance); Beulah and others, Julie Johnson; Diane and others, Christine Toy Johnson