BWW Review: Absolutely Fantastic COME FROM AWAY at PPAC
On the morning of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, there were a lot of other planes in the sky that had to be re-routed and emergency landed wherever pilots were able to find a runway. Thirty-eight of those emergency landings took place in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland's quiet airport that was on the verge of being shut down for lack of use. The people of Gander, rather than being overwhelmed by the massive influx of 7000 scared and confused people from all over the world, sprang into action, set up shelters, made food and took people into their homes for five days until they could safely travel home. This is the rare 9-11 story that doesn't focus much on the attack itself, but instead on the ripple effect it had on the whole world, and how even in the midst of tragedy, people come together to help each other. While the premise might sound a bit corny, the execution is absolutely brilliant and the story balanced in a way that feels true to human nature and not at all saccharine. COME FROM AWAY is a rare new musical based on true events that is original, unique and absolutely wonderful.
The 12-person cast of Come From Away do double-triple-quadruple duty as members of the community of Gander, complete with some excellent Newfoundland accents, as well as various members of the "folk come from away" who were re-routed to Gander. Amazingly, even with one person playing many roles, each of the actors manages to completely embody the character of the moment through subtle costume adjustments, accent changes and body movements. The sets are almost non-existent save for some chairs adjusted into various formations, and a rotating stage that was integrated so seamlessly that you barely notice it. Instead, the performances and the lighting are all that's needed to create this world. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the whole production feels like an endless flurry of activities punctuated with occasional bursts of song.
While this is technically a Broadway musical, it's not typical in any way. The songs are fantastic, but instead of pausing the action to sing for a few minutes, the songs are integrated into the story. Most of the songs have dialogue interspersed that helps the story unfold, and there are frequent reprises that present themselves like people singing while they work or cue the audience to know that we're in a scene with the Newfoundlanders and not the Come From Awayers. Telling the story this way seems to strip away the gloss of Broadway, and draw the audience in even more.
This is a truly an ensemble cast with no one as the star. The closest we get is the American Airlines pilot, Beverly, played by Marika Aubrey. In Me and the Sky, she sings of her love of flying, her struggle to be taken seriously as a female pilot, and how she knows that the job she loves has irreparably changed. There is the theme throughout the production of knowing that the world has changed, but not yet knowing how. Most of the characters choose to distract themselves with the work of taking care of others because they "can't watch the news anymore," other people lash out in fear at a Muslim passenger. Other characters are portrayed in broad strokes: the Brooklyinte who is initially worried about leaving his wallet unattended; the mother with the NYC firefighter son; the couple who met on the plane; the gay couple worried about how out they can be in a town like Gander; and the lone town journalist who is in her first day on the job. The local vet takes care of all the animals on board the planes, and the mayor of Gander reaches a temporary truce with the bus driver's union so they can deliver passengers to nearby communities.
None of this is the stuff of regular Broadway fare, and even the actors themselves seem at first glance just like everyday people--albeit with fantastic singing voices. The end result is so satisfying that it's hard to articulate, but it feels like a moment of catharsis for a world still holding its breath.
Come from Away runs December 3-8 at Providence Performing Arts Center 220 Weybosset St Providence RI. Tickets are available for purchase online at ppacri.org, by phone at (401) 421-2787, or at the PPAC Box Office located at 220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence.
Box Office Hours: Monday through Friday; 10A - 5P; Saturday: 10A to 2P; and 2 hours prior to curtain times on performance days.
Photo: North American tour ensemble by Matthew Murphy