BWW Review: A Joyous COME FROM AWAY at SHEA'S BUFFALO Theatre
COME FROM AWAY has come to Buffalo. The show with that rather odd title that has been beguiling audiences since it's inception and doesn't have the same name recognition as HAMILTON fully deserves to be placed among HAMILTON's ranks. When the brilliant tour opened at Shea's Buffalo Theatre on Tuesday night I have feeling that most people in the audience had no idea what they were about to see (and quite honestly, may only have been in the audience because they kept their subscription from last season that guaranteed a seat for HAMILTON. ) What played out over the next 100 minutes was one of the most captivating and ingeniously told pieces of theatre seen in many years.
The action takes place on Sept 11,2001 in the small town of Gander in New Foundland. This Canadian town become the emergency landing airport for 38 airplanes that were grounded due to the closing of US airspace after the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center. How does a town with just under 10,000 residents accept another 7000 passengers of multiple nationalities, feed them, board them, and communicate with them. All of this amid a school bus strike that at first refused to serve as the only possible mode of transportation for all of these people. And yes, those numbers are accurate, 38 International flights descended on this unlikely Canadian haven in one night.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein have taken on the writing of the book, music and lyrics-- no small task. But what they have created is a musical that shows reverence to that disastrous event, while educating the audience and endearing all of it's characters. Rarely can you feel a complete sense of attention in an audience, where everyone breathes with the characters, laughs and feels the pangs of heartbreak, all at the same time. The score is deeply based in folk traditions of rural Canada, with the musicians embedded onstage with the performers, including a fiddle, Bodhran,Harmonium, and Irish flute, to name a few.
The fascinating set design by Beowulf Boritt appears basic and utilitarian, until you see it in action. Interspersed among trees there is a slatted wooden back wall, that becomes an airplane and other larger buildings. With a central turntable, 12 random chairs and few tables, Director Christopher Ashley's fluid direction places the cast of 12 in multiple formations to suggest the interior of a plane, a bus, a school house or random bars. Each cast member has a central role but plays multiple other parts so swiftly, often with just the change of a vest or jacket, it becomes mind blowing how clearly the story is told, with such precision and attention to detail.
And now to the cast....it would be unconscionable to omit any, as each is an integral part of the story, and all performances were strong. Julie Johnson is Beulah, the mother figure who takes charge. Ms. Johnson has an infectious personality and some strong pipes when she belts out a tune. She bonds with Hannah, played by Danielle K. Thomas, another mom whose son is a firefighter (just like Beulah's), but can't be located. Thomas sings beautifully in the plaintive "I am Here."
Kevin Carolan is Claude , the town mayor, always in charge as the town meets at the local Tim Horton's (no jokes lost on Buffalo audiences!) Carolan's interactions with town citizens made him a lovable character as he organized the forces and declares Gander in a stage of emergency. The local SPCA worker is Bonnie, played by Sharone Sayegh, who is charming and endearing as she risks everything to care for the 19 animals that she found as she searched the cargo in each plane (dogs, cats, and monkeys!) Harter Clingman is great as the town cop, Oz and James Earl Jones II is very funny as Bob, and also a swarmy airplane captain.
Andrew Samonsky stands out with a star presence as Kevin T, as a gay man from Los Angeles who is traveling with his boyfriend Kevin J (Nick Duckart). Mr Samonsky has a charismatic swagger and gorgeous voice, highlighted best in "Prayer." This emotional song included the tune prayer of St. Francis but merges with multiple other religious tunes, underscoring the amount of multi-national praying that occurred during the 5 days that Gander was taken over. Mr. Duckart is appropriately bitchy in his portrayal of the Kevin J., but also does fine work playing Ali, the Muslim passenger who is on one of the planes and is ostracized.
Marika Aubrey gives a first rate performance as the female airline captain, Beverley. Aubrey has a strong voice and winning stage presence. She shines in telling her story of a young girl who dreamed of being a pilot and rose through the ranks, despite a career of challenges, in her song "Me and the Sky."
An unlikely love affair develops between a Texas woman (Diane) and and English man (Nick). Christine Toy Johnson is a joy to watch, as the shy and very worried Diane, while Chamblee Ferguson is all thumbs and embarrassment as he tries to woo her. Julia Knitel is perfectly cast as the young TV reporter Janice, who must basically cover the entire 5 day story as a novice. She brings a naive nature that is utterly believable.
The script does a great job of finding levity in a very scary situation. Where will all the food come from, where will they sleep, who gets diapers and baby food, prescriptions are needed, there isn't enough toilet paper (then there is too much toilet paper!). The bathrooms desperately need cleaning, but no one volunteers-- 6 cardiac surgeons on their way to a conference step up, knowing at thing or two about sanitary work spaces. To calm the passengers, some are invited to become honorary New Foundlanders, in a hysterical initiation ceremony, that included kissing the fish, as they sing "Screech In." Choreographer Kelly Devine creates dances that feel organic for the townspeople, without feel glitzy.
The show ends with a lovely epilogue of sorts, 10 years after the events. Many passengers return to Gander after a decade of correspondences and visits, having having donated thousands of dollars in donations of thanks and forging friendships. This town had the deepest of hearts and generosity, all with the attitude of, "you would have done the same for us." One can hope that the town of Gander's story and it's residents will always be an example of the goodness that occurred at a time of extreme darkness and evil. COME FROM AWAY deserves to be seen by everyone- and what a gem of a musical story it is.
COME FROM AWAY plays at Shea's Buffalo Theatre through October 20, 2019. Contact sheas.org for more information.