BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY Feels Like Coming Home in Calgary
In 2013, Calgary's own Stage West Theatre presented the Pechet Family Musical Award to a brand new show called Come From Away. Six years, two dozen awards, and over 675 Broadway performances later, this Canadian musical has made a pitstop in Calgary on its way around the world. Broadway Across Canada, hosting The First National Tour, is instilling a sense of Canadian pride at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium.
The longest running Canadian musical on Broadway, Come From Away tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland (and surrounding towns) who hosted over 7,000 passengers when the US Airspace closed following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on September 11th 2001. For five days, the population of this small town doubled in size, and they opened their hearts and homes to the people whose lives would change forever.
This show is a unique telling of a story that touched so many people's lives. We are given a front row seat to something truly magical: a story of community, of growth, of love, and a reminder that even in the darkest times, we can find joy and comfort in each other. Despite its perpetually dated content, there is something very modern and needed in a story that does not shy away from the fear, racism, hope, and open hearts that followed tragedy.
From those first drumbeats, you're drawn into their world: this small town feeling with a rich culture. The set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) is simple and incredibly well-used; a collection of mismatched chairs set on a turntable and 12 actors moving everything around. No breaks, no real time to grab a drink of water, barely leaving the stage. It's just us and the actors creating the many rooms and even more people that occupy Gander. Though each actor has a character that has a distinct storyline that we follow to fruition, there are dozens of characters who pass through the scenes with just as much heart.
There's listening to the cast album and imagining the quick transitions and costume changes, and then there is watching the intricate choreography that goes into some of those songs. Blink, and you'll miss someone slipping on one of Toni-Leslie James' costumes. Kelly Devine's choreography might not feature a lot of high kicks or back flips but there is something chilling and satisfying about twelve actors moving in sync while someone sings about the 28 hours they were trapped on an airplane. Everything from set changes to belting ballads are specifically choreographed to give the most meaning to every single step. I was absolutely in love.
Because this show is still so fresh and not many actors have tackled these particular roles - not to mention these characters are based on real people and events - I came in expecting to see a certain performance. There are specific moments and beats that I was waiting for them to hit, and still surprise me. That was all in Becky Gulsvig's performance. Captain Beverley Bass is probably one of the most recognizable characters from the show. Originally played by Jenn Colella, the pilot sings "Me and the Sky" in a moment of seeming calm, breaking our hearts all over again. Gulsvig had this amazing ability to keep her energy up while playing two very different characters. Whether Beverley, the passionate pilot, or Annette, the day-dreaming teacher, she had an endearing quality about her. Both Beverley and Annette have distinct accents and Gulsvig belted out her crazy notes without breaking once. She never lost that strong, nasal quality that makes her voice distinct from the other characters.
Another standout for me was Nick Duckart, playing Kevin J and Ali. Two very different characters with very different emotional journeys and yet Duckart had some seamless transitions. He and Harter Clingman (playing Oz and others) pleasantly surprised me with how drastic their character switches were as well as their powerful voices.
I was also so pleased to see the band (normally seated at the back of the stage) being featured in the show. Conductor Cynthia Kortman Westphal and the rest of the band were just incredibly talented.
Rounding out the cast were the talents of Kevin Carolan as Claude; Chamblee Ferguson as Nick; Julie Johnson as Beulah; Christine Toy Johnson as Diane; James Earl Jones II as Bob; Megan McGinnis as Bonnie; Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T; Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah; and Emily Walton as Janice. Every single one of them told a unique story with a mix of synchronized action and gorgeous harmonies.
There is something about this show that feels like coming home. Something so distinctly Canadian - something that is still in so many people's hearts. I walked out of the theatre almost giddy from holding my breath for 100 minutes. All of the laughter and tears stirred me to my feet in praise of this show and everyone involved. It is an all-out emotional journey.
Come From Away is a phrase used in Atlantic Canada to mean someone who was not born here. Some think of it as a divisive term but here, it is a welcome to people who never intended to come but are home nonetheless.
What a powerful show.
Come From Away is playing in Calgary until March 24th before moving on to Omaha, Nebraska. Tickets can be purchased at https://comefromaway.com