BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY National Tour at Durham Performing Arts Center
Come From Away is based on a true story of when the isolated community of Gander, Newfoundland played host to the world. What started as an average day in a small Canadian town turned into an international sleep-over when 38 planes, carrying thousands of people from across the globe, were diverted to Gander's air strip on September 11th, 2001. Undaunted by culture clashes and language barriers, the people of Gander cheered the stranded travelers with music, an open bar, and the recognition that they're all part of a global family.
Before arriving on Broadway, whenever people heard about this musical, they thought it had no chance in hell of ever succeeding. They assumed that audiences were just going to write it off as "the 9/11 musical". Especially given that Come From Away was an original musical not based on any pre-existing property with a cast that consisted of 12 people, all of whom were playing multiple roles, and none of them were these big deal Broadway performers. Yet, when the show opened on March 12th, 2017, it way surpassed everyone's expectations by not only becoming a critical darling, but also a huge hit at the box office. Come From Away also ended up receiving 7 Tony Award nominations (including Best Musical).
The genius of this show written by the Canadian husband-and-wife team of Irene Sankoff & David Hein is that the story isn't so much about the events of 9/11, it's more about what happened in Gander because of 9/11. However, we the audience do get to witness everyone's reactions to what was going on in New York from the townsfolk of Gander to the "plane people." Those moments should easily bring back cathartic memories anyone has of that tragic event (though I was only 7 years old at the time, so I personally have no recollection of what happened on that day from my perspective).
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, everything in the staging is given a very minimalist approach. We the audience never see any planes in the show at all because everything is much more suggested. All it takes is a cast of 12 performers who do all the work with 12 chairs, a few tables, and minimal costume changes. In the beginning of the musical, Beowulf Boritt's wooden set reflects how clear the sky was on September 11th, 2001. As the plot moves along, lighting effects represent the different times of day in Gander. Howell Binkley's lighting also does a great job of showing the audience where to look on stage at different points throughout the show.
Each member of the 12 person ensemble plays multiple roles, mainly alternating between the townsfolk of Gander and the plane people, and they all appear to get their own opportunities to shine as they each take turns providing exposition to the audience. Marika Aubrey plays one of the more high profile characters in the musical, Captain Beverly Bass, as she gets the only big solo number, 'Me and the Sky'. It is through that song (and Marika's stunning rendition of it) where we learn about Beverly's journey from wanting to be an airplane pilot to where she is now. Highlights from the townspeople of Gander include Kevin Carolan as the mayor, Claude, Harter Clingman as the police constable, Oz, Julie Johnson as a local school teacher, Beulah, Sharone Sayegh as SPCA worker, Bonnie, and Julia Knitel as news reporter, Janice Mosher. Other highlights from the plane people include Nick Duckart and Brandon Springman (who went on for Andrew Samonsky at the performance I was in attendance for) as a same sex couple both named Kevin, Chamblee Ferguson as Nick, a Brit who develops a romantic relationship with Diane, a Texan played by Jenny Ashman (who went on for Christine Toy Johnson), James Earl Jones II as a guy from Jersey named Bob, and Danielle K. Thomas as a woman from New York named Hannah. At a few different points in the show, the whole cast is joined by an onstage band for some rowdy group numbers that are terrifically choreographed by Kelly Devine. Not to mention that the band plays Irene & David's original score that is successfully brought to life through August Eriksmoen's beautifully authentic orchestrations.
Overall, Come From Away is such an incredible musical filled with so many emotions! It's got humor, heart, joy, and catharsis. What better way to start off the New Year than by spreading some kindness around the world? It's a 100 minute journey with no intermission that makes your stop in Gander feel continuous. A great feel good show with a great message, and it never enters into schmaltzy territory. This national touring production is currently playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through January 19th.