BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY at Adrienne Arsht Center For The Performing Arts
"On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, there's an airport. It used to be one of the biggest airports in the world. And next to it is a town, called Gander." These first lines of dialogue set the tone for a musical about community and acceptance in the face of adversity. That musical, Come From Away, just opened in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts as a leg of its first North American tour.
Come From Away-with book, music and lyrics by David Hein and Irene Sankoff-was first developed in 2013 at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada before making its world premiere at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse. The musical transferred to Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The show would then transfer to Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where it is still running today. Each of these productions were directed by Christopher Ashley, who also staged this tour.
Every North American production of Come From Away has been awarded Best Musical in their respective markets, from the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, D.C. to the Craig Noel Awards in San Diego to the Drama Desk Awards in New York City. The Broadway production also received seven Tony Award nominations in 2017, winning Best Direction of a Musical for Ashley.
The story of Come From Away is based on a tragic but true event. On September 11, 2001, members of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda hijacked four commercial airliners. Two planes were flown into the World Trade Center, the third was flown into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania.
For the first time in history, U.S. Airspace was closed for all commercial aircraft, resulting in the rerouting of international flights arriving to the United States, with 38 planes being diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander carrying nearly 7000 passengers. Come From Away utilizes real interviews to tell the stories of the citizens of Gander and the stranded "plane people" as they interact with one another over the course of a few days.
Ashley's staging seems as fresh in this production as it was two years ago on Broadway. Come from Away's intimate aesthetic may have been drowned out by the vastness of the Ziff Ballet Opera House, but this echoic void was filled by the cast's kinetic energy onstage.
The show's ensemble of 12 maintain a close connection with the timeless story they tell, even as they play different characters throughout the evening. Despite this, some actors may have struggled with diction as they spoke in their Newfoundland dialect, resulting in some dialogue being muffled.
As the ensemble sings its group numbers, they maintain a well-balanced sound as they blend both in unison and multi-part harmony. Not one individual voice stands out during the number "Lead Us Out of the Night," where the ensemble sings in complete unison. Similarly, during the song "Prayer," the cast sings different contrapuntal melodies in English, Hebrew, Hindi and Arabic. The company's musicality was well-supported by music director Cynthia Kortman Westphal and sound designer Gareth Owen.
Gulsvig plays the dual role of Newfoundlander Anette and Captain Beverly Bass. As Annette, Gulsvig balances a sense of shyness and humility with gusto and lust. Gulsvig also develops a clear story arc while playing Beverly Bass (the real-life American Airlines pilot flying from Paris to Dallas during 9/11). Her character's desire to fly after days of grounding is coupled by her need to return to her family. During Beverly's anthem, "Me And The Sky," Gulsvig is at her most vulnerable when she sings the lines "at 8:46, there's been a terrorist action, and the one thing I loved more than anything else was the bomb." As a singer, Gulsvig also showcases her well-supported high D-flats which are sung with a bright but slightly covered tone.
Jones gives a hilarious performance as Bob, an African American New Yorker who fears losing his wallet when he is taken in to stay with the mayor of nearby Appleton (played by Kevin Carolan). When asked by the mayor to steal barbecue grills from local residents to host a large cookout, Bob fears being shot only to be invited in for a cup of tea by every resident he meets. Jones reacts to these unusual situations with both confusion and humor, creating a fresh and brazen persona that leaves audiences in stitches.
Duckart, a Hialeah native and New World School of the Arts alum, returns to Miami in this production of Come From Away, where he plays the roles of Kevin J. and Ali. Duckart utilizes his body and voice to play two distinct characters. As Kevin, Duckart portrays a gay man with heart and humility. While his performance in this role is seen as flamboyant, it does not stick out as stereotypical or one-dimensional. During the musical number "Heave Away," Duckart also showcases his physical prowess as a dancer, executing Kelly Devine's choreography with sharpness and style. As Ali, Duckart portrays a Muslim man fervently keeping his faith despite the Islamophobia he faces in the days following 9/11.
The show's performers were backed by a band of nine, led by Westphal on keyboard. Like the Broadway production, this orchestra evokes an almost Celtic sound that is relatively unique to Come from Away's provincial Newfoundland setting, thanks to August Eriksmoen's orchestrations. In addition to the typical instrumentation of guitar, piano, drums and bass, audiences can enjoy the sound of an Irish flute or Uileann pipes (played by Isaac Alderson) or fiddle (played by Kiana June Weber).
On Broadway, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt utilized real trees with roots sprouting into the orchestra pit of the Schoenfeld Theatre. While these trees were not featured in the tour, several fake (albeit natural looking) trees were planted in their place. While simple in setup, Boritt's design (complete with a turntable and random tables and chairs) allowed Come from Away's story and performers to shine onstage while still creating an atmosphere that represents the small island town. While there are no real scene changes, a few neon signs or props may be used to indicate location, such as a Tim Horton's sign to represent the Canadian coffee shop.
Toni-Leslie James' costumes, while simplistic and contemporary, effectively differentiate the characters each actor plays. While Duckart's Kevin J. sports a blazer, his Ali swaps the blazer for a Taqiyah (a headpiece worn by Muslim men during prayer). Additionally, while Gulsvig's Annette wears a denim vest and white t-shirt, her Beverly Bass covers this casual look with her navy blue pilot's jacket.
Howell Binkley's lighting design, with plenty of blue and burnt orange tones, evokes a primitive feel that encapsulates the small, untouched town of Gander. Binkley's lighting effects enhance Boritt's scenic design, especially when shining light through the open panels in the wooden drop. Other unique effects Binkley uses include stars, multi-colored washes and textured gobos.
Come From Away may have come from humble beginnings, but its impact has transcended beyond its Canadian roots. While the show's small-scaled production values may not always be effective in large road houses, audiences can still enjoy rousing performances and a moving story about supporting others during times of hardship.
The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and Broadway Across America present
Come from Away
Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House. 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, FL 33132.
Opened: Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Closing: Sunday, June 23, 2019.
Directed by Christopher Ashley.
Music Direction by Cynthia Kortman Westphal.
Musical Staging by Kelly Devine.
Featuring: Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Christine Toy Johnson, Julie Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan McGinnis, Danielle K. Thomas, Andrew Samonsky, Emily Walton, Marika Aubrey, Jane Bunting, Michael Brian Dunn, Julie Garnyé, Adam Halpin, Aaron Michael Ray.
Music Supervisor and Musical Arrangements: Ian Eisendrath.
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt.
Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James.
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley.
Sound Design by Gareth Owen.
Orchestrations by August Eriksmoen.