BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY at Dr. Phillips Center Shows Us the Best of Humanity in the Worst of Times
Like many Tuesdays, September 11, 2001 was a relatively slow day for air traffic. Still, that meant there were hundreds of U.S. planes in the sky with thousands of passengers on board, and even more on incoming international flights. So when the FAA decided to ground every one of those planes and close U.S. airspace for the first time in history, all those aircraft had to go somewhere... and 38 of them ended up in the tiny town of Gander on the Canadian island of Newfoundland.
With a cast of only 12 actors, COME FROM AWAY recounts how this town of 9,000 residents absorbed nearly 7,000 new visitors in a matter of hours - almost all of them scared, angry, and left in the dark in the days before cell phones were widespread. The show is a beautiful and emotional testament to the best of humanity in the worst of times, powerful proof of theatre's cathartic virtue. Having opened on Broadway in 2017 (and still running there today), it arrives on tour at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center this week with gorgeous presentation and an absolutely stellar cast.
Given how fundamentally 9/11 changed our world, there have been relatively few major attempts at dramatizing the events of the day, whether on stage or screen. Critics panned 2011's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as treacly and exploitative. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center met a predictably mixed response in the public eye. 2017's 9/11, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Charlie Sheen, had the right heart but neither the budget nor the artistic finesse required to tackle a topic so delicate, and audiences protested the film as too much too soon. Paul Greengrass' United 93 remains the only universally acclaimed chronicle of the attacks on screen.
Theatrical attempts have generally fared better, with Ann Nelson's The Guys opening off-Broadway to great praise just a few months after the attacks, and Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat coming soon after that, both plays starring Sigourney Weaver in their original runs. A handful of other shows (mostly off-Broadway) have looked critically at life in a post-9/11 world - perhaps most notably Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced - or have engaged with the attacks directly in a given scene or song. But it is probably fair to say that COME FROM AWAY is the most concerted, significant, and successful attempt to contemplate 9/11 in a Broadway production to date.
That the odds are against it underscores just what a tremendous achievement COME FROM AWAY represents. Almost two decades later, this still isn't easy ground to tread - not for creators and certainly not for audiences. But COME FROM AWAY rings true. It is reverent but not funereal, stirring but not saccharine. It works, perhaps, because it looks at 9/11 from a distance - not from the streets of Manhattan but the distant shores of Canada instead. And it purposely eschews the maudlin. There is no emotional browbeating in this show. The libretto doesn't even rush to establish that the day in question is September 11. Those who don't know will reach that realization slowly, and the show is all the more effective for its restraint. Even musically, COME FROM AWAY resists mawkishness, adopting an earthy folk-pop sound with Newfoundland flavor and avoiding any hit-'em-in-the-gut balladry. There are times when it's even bouncy, catchy, and downright fun.
It is as much a story about human empathy and heart as it is about 9/11 or air traffic control. The fact that almost all its details, right down to the character names, are reportedly true only adds to its effect. It speaks to a part of us that we sometimes forget we have - the part that we hope will rise to the occasion and respond to tragedy with compassion and care.
Watching COME FROM AWAY, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Rogers' reminder that when we see something scary in the news, we should look for the helpers. This is a show about the helpers. And in turn, it helps us too. Sitting in that audience, I could feel the weight of what 9/11 meant to every single person in the room. Sniffles and sobs came from different people at different times, all of us working through painful memories... memories that undoubtedly look very different but which are all tied to the same date. I appreciate so much the sense of perspective this show provides. I am American, and 9/11 pierced right through my soul, and yet those events did not affect me nearly so directly as it did these non-Americans, whose perspectives I probably hadn't paused to consider fully enough until now. That is the hard work of theatre, and COME FROM AWAY does it well. And the challenge of writing a show where 12 actors must tackle numerous characters and timelines interchangeably must have been very hard work indeed.
Flipping through the program, I said to my friend before the show, "This cast is going to be good." Their résumés are off the charts, and it shows. Every actor delivers and then some. I was particularly blown away by Becky Gulsvig, who plays air captain Beverley, and the incredibly warm and likeable Julie Johnson as Beulah. Meanwhile, Danielle K. Thomas knocked Hannah's vocals and dramatic demands out of the park.
On opening night in Orlando, Adam Halpin stood in for Andrew Samonsky in the roles of Kevin and Garth and felt right at home, capably filling those big and well-known shoes. Speaking of big boots to fill, the cast also includes James Earl Jones II (that's Darth Vader's third cousin, in case you were wondering), but it's his performance not his pedigree that makes an impression.
Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Christine Toy Johnson, Megan McGinnis, and Emily Walton were all wonderful too, each actor assuming numerous roles. I'm glad that the fantastic band, conducted by Cynthia Kortman Westphal (who also plays everything from accordion to harmonium), were given their time to shine on stage too.
COME FROM AWAY closes an all-around stellar season at Dr. Phillips Center. It might not have the name recognition of Hamilton or Hello, Dolly!, but this is a show you want to be sure you see. It's something special, and since we have it here in town through June 16, you won't even have to come from away to see it. Get your tickets now.
What do you think of COME FROM AWAY's national tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: The First North American Tour Cast of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy