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Review: Uplifting COME FROM AWAY Tour Makes Return Trip to OC's Segerstrom Center

Hopeful, inspirational, and beautifully performed, the heartwarming musical about one small town's response to a tragic moment is worth revisiting.

Review: Uplifting COME FROM AWAY Tour Makes Return Trip to OC's Segerstrom Center
Marika Aubrey (center) and the Tour Cast of COME FROM AWAY

"Man, I wanna move to Canada! They're just so much nicer up there."

It was one of those "it's funny, 'cus it's true" kind of statements that I overheard amongst a crowd of just-uplifted audience members as we all began filing out of Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa at the conclusion of the recent opening night performance of the heartwarming, Canadian-set COME FROM AWAY, the Tony Award-winning 2017 Broadway musical that has returned for an oh-so-brief week of shows here in the OC through June 26, 2022.

So is that audience member's sentiment true? Why, yes, for the most part... Canadians really are this super nice.

Endearingly inspirational and beautifully performed, COME FROM AWAY---as seen in this relaunched post-lockdown national tour---certainly proves itself to be worthy of repeat visits. And more so than ever before---especially with everything (terrible) going on in the world lately---seeing the show again now is a wonderful, very needed antidote to the rampant negativity that pervades our lives today. At its core, the show is a hopeful reminder that, even in the darkest of times, such unconditional kindness for others does still exist in our world, even if evidence of such behavior is getting harder and harder to find these days.

An engaging musical theater hybrid of broad, light comedy, historical reenactment, and heartbreaking human drama, the show is directed with a seeming mandate for joy and good will by Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley. Its impactful power is further enhanced by the book and music written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

If there was ever going to be a moment in theater history when a flattering though overused stereotype---that Canadians are innately polite and hospitable---can be lovingly re-emphasized for dramatic/humorous effect, it would be here in this lovely "little" show that recounts the (still) relatively not-widely known true story of the time when a bunch of civilian and commercial planes from all over the world had to be forcibly diverted to---and indefinitely detained in---a small, isolated island town located in Newfoundland, Canada, as a direct result of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

As the world was still trying to piece together the who and the why of what just tragically happened in New York City and in Washington DC, world leaders swiftly reacted to the threat by forcing every airplane around the world---particularly ones already flying near the airspace of the attacks---to quickly land and stay grounded at various airports around Canada. The hope is that this action ensures that all aircraft be taken off airspaces immediately, making them less likely to be targeted or, worse, be used again as potential weapons of mass destruction.

One of these airports happens to be located in the tiny community of Gander---the setting of this remarkable collection of fact-based stories---where its peaceful, quirky, small town life is suddenly disrupted by the surprise arrival of 38 planes carrying over 7,000 temporarily stranded passengers and flight crew members from all corners of the world. Within hours, the number of visitors at Gander outnumbered the town's own local population.

Anticipating an onslaught of many hungry, exasperated, and confused new arrivals that might have to stay for an undetermined period of time, the unbelievably kind and selfless residents of Gander immediately spring into action without even a moment's hesitation, with everyone pitching in to provide everything from finding temporary shelters and impromptu overnight accommodations, to creating make-shift cafeterias and media centers. They even organized clothing drives, supply runs, and access to multi-denominational church services and, of course, mass transportation (this emergency situation even temporarily halted the very heated strike of the local bus drivers).

This is, of course, 2001... a time before smart phones, WiFi, and social media. So, understandably, the stranded, confused travelers---unaware about the true dangers that just occurred---are surprised and even cautious with Gander's overabundant generosity at first. This just shows how sad it is that such unconditional kindness is immediately seen as a strange, foreign concept---that is, when it is provided so liberally and without any expectation of compensation or reciprocity (though, for sake of realism, moments of cultural misunderstanding still infiltrated the niceties).

Yep, as the world grapples with utter chaos and a new, more fearful reality, this small but impactful Canadian community banded together to shelter, feed, and offer comfort to thousands of strangers from different nationalities and backgrounds---just because it is absolutely the decent and right thing to do. We can all definitely learn a lesson or two from Gander's amazing residents.

This display of selflessness and the many ways it is received is at the heart of COME FROM AWAY, which masterfully interweaves multiple fact-based stories, characters, and interactions that occurred during the span of one very emotional week amongst a group of strangers that, seemingly overnight, became close friends, and, to a certain extent, better versions of themselves.

In order to tell these parallel and criss-crossing personal narratives, the show cleverly utilizes (both literally and figuratively) a turntable of extremely talented actors that bob and weave together in a well-choreographed, sometimes hypnotic life-size game of Life. Without a single weak link in the ensemble, every cast member skillfully portrays many distinct real-life (or composite) personalities of both Gander residents and the variety of stranded travelers who have "come from away."

This is arguably why the show is so winning, and continuously earns the audience's collective cheers---all these actors have been tasked to portray multiple individual characters, sometimes switching over to different ones within seconds with just a different jacket or hat or a different cadence or accent... and making each distinct character they play distinguishable and memorable from the other, while also making sure they do so with reverence and honor. After all, these characters are all based on real people who actually lived through this shared experience.

Review: Uplifting COME FROM AWAY Tour Makes Return Trip to OC's Segerstrom Center

Though, yes, each ensemble member plays multiple characters, they do inhabit a "main" role on most occasions. Jenny Ashman (who stepped in for Marika Aubrey on Opening Night) is a standout as Beverley Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft and one of the many pilots grounded at Gander. Distinct-voiced Kevin Carolan (another tour returnee) remains outstanding as Gander's even-keeled mayor Claude Elliott. The audience also enjoyed seeing Christine Toy Johnson and Kilty Reidy (stepping in for Chamblee Ferguson on Opening Night) who play, among other roles, an oh-so-cute mature couple who meet as fellow plane passengers that begin a flirty romance.

The audience easily adored James Earl Jones II, who steals the show multiple times with his hilarious turns as both a suave pilot (complete with an over-confident lusty swagger walk-on) who makes Gander's females quiver, and as Bob, an African-American passenger who takes a while to get used to the infamous kindness and hospitality of Canadians (a not-so-subtle commentary on how Black men, by contrast, are otherwise treated in the U.S.)

The very likable Kristen Peace is great as Bonnie Harris, Gander's animal-loving SPCA worker who takes it upon herself to look after the non-human passengers that arrived with the visitors. And Gander's porn-stached police constable Oz earns lots of well-deserved laughs thanks to tour returnee Harter Clingman's performance (and boy can dance, too!).

I was also excited to see Steffi DiDomenicantonio back in the OC (after seeing her as Ilse in the first national tour of SPRING AWAKENING) now playing on-air local TV reporter Janice Mosher, who, in the midst of the hubbub of activity is thrust into the spotlight as she is only reporter presently imbedded in the suddenly overpopulated center-of-the-world Gander.

I am also deeply touched by the camaraderie and close friendship that develops between Julie Johnson's empathetic school teacher Beulah and anxious passenger Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas). The characters bond over the fact that both their sons are first responders---except that Hannah's son is still among the missing in New York City. Their interactions signal another reminder about what life-changing aftermaths may await these passengers once they leave the safety bubble of Gander.

And finally, I especially enjoyed the great chemistry shared by Jeremy Woodard and Nick Duckart, who (besides their other minor characters) mostly play American gay couple Kevin and Kevin (yep, they have the same name), whose relationship is forever affected by the events of their temporary stay. Duckart also intermittently plays the character of Ali, a Muslim man who continually has to deal with being the unfortunate (and unfounded) target of prejudice and suspicion given the tragic events of the past few days. It's yet another way the multi-layered COME FROM AWAY highlights an injustice amongst the sea of civility and kindness.

The tour ensemble also includes Jane Bunting, Amelia Cormack, Aaron Michael Ray, and Brandon Springman.

Besides its acting ensemble, the COME FROM AWAY tour can also be praised for its technical and creative achievements. Beowulf Borritt's simple but evocatively rustic scenic design surrounds the cast with a natural-textured canvas that lets their stories be the focus (even movable various chairs and props cleverly imply or suggest plane cockpits or a local Tim Horton's. Lighting designer Howell Binkley accentuates these environments to evoke discernible moods or settings---some happy and celebratory, some melancholy and reverent. Toni-Leslie James' early 2000's-era costumes help differentiate the actors between their multiple characters with relative ease.

I was also quite intrigued and impressed by Kelly Devine's lyrical movements and choreography in the show. Her incorporation of subtle, but wholly expressive movements throughout COME FROM AWAY are as shrewdly purposeful as they are mesmerizing, adding a haunting layer to some of the more dramatic scenes and an unbound, infectious joy during the rather memorable bar gathering scene. Especially fascinating is how Devine managed to elicit excitement and electricity in seemingly mundane scenes that featured passengers sitting on a plane or having discussions in a restaurant or in solemn prayer at a church. Witnessing it all combined on stage can be quite moving and beautiful at times.

A touching, unabashed celebration of unwavering human kindness, the musical's first national tour originally landed in Orange County back in February of 2019, and its return engagement this week winningly reiterates the show's timeless, emotionally resonant themes. Still brimming with heart, kindness, and just all-around warm fuzzies, COME FROM AWAY is a big bear hug of a show---a comforting piece of theater that feels like a beacon of hope and light in the face of unfathomable trauma. Its palpable positive energy and feel-good vibes continue to make it an easily entertaining communal experience. Though, yes, it took a tragic event for such goodness to come to light, seeing these emotional journeys play out in an intermission-less, perfectly-paced show keeps it a superb show to experience, whether it's the first time or (like myself), the third.

As our world becomes ever so much more cynical and bleak---particularly now as war looms, inflation persists, prejudice rises, rights are revoked, and an ever-present pandemic trudges on---COME FROM AWAY and the town of Gander is that uplifting, hopeful distraction we all need now more than ever. It is a truly heartwarming reminder of a world we should all try to strive for: where helping out fellow human beings regardless of their race, age, gender, economic background, or sexual orientation is one's automatic, go-to behavior.

It's still shocking to me that there are now people amongst us who never knew 9/11 happened. Perhaps it's a perfect time to go back to Gander while this Canadian gem is still in our backyard.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

Photos from the National Tour of COME FROM AWAY by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Some portions of this review were previously published and have been edited to correct cast changes.

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COME FROM AWAY

Book, Music and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Musical Supervision and Arrangements by Ian Eisendrath. Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Howell Binkley , sound design by Gareth Owen. Musical staging by Kelly Devine. Directed by Christopher Ashley.

Performances of COME FROM AWAY continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through June 26, 2022. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

***




From This Author - Michael Quintos

A So. Cal. Contributing Editor since 2009, Michael Lawrence Quintos is a talented, mild-mannered Designer by day. But as night falls, he regularly performs on various stages everywhere as a Countertenor... (read more about this author)


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