BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY Inspires and Delights, Now Thru Feb. 3
Come From Away is far and away one of the best ensemble pieces to come to the Broadway stage in recent memory, and now theatre-goers in the San Francisco Bay area can see it at the Golden Gate Theatre, now through February 3, 2019. The show - with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein - "tells the true story of 38 planes and almost 7,000 passengers from around the world that were diverted to the small community of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001, doubling its population in an instant." Using a documentary theater approach, Sankoff and Hein drew from interviews with the people of Gander and "the plane people," as they affectionately came to be called, to craft their loving, hugely funny and deeply touching show.
Unlike the current, largely trumped-up immigration crisis, 9/11 was a true crisis of world-changing proportion. People everywhere were shaken and stunned by the use of planes as human-filled projectile bombs. After the towers were hit, it was thought that there could be more attackers or plane bombs at the ready, yet the tiny town of Gander took in the 7,000 passengers with on-the-spot, no-questions-asked generosity and welcome, quickly rallying to transport, feed, house, and provide supplies to their international guests (including dogs, cats and two Bonobo chimpanzees, one of whom was pregnant).
Beowulf Boritt's minimalist set gives us the starkness of "Darkness and Trees," which was the first impression of Newfoundland that the passengers had, but the music truly sets the stage. Using instruments like the button accordion, the Bodhran, Djembe, a Harmonium and Uilleann Pipes, music conductor Cynthia Kortman Westphal brought a bracing Celtic sea-farer sound that captured the tambour and feel of the island located at the very northeastern tip of Canada.
Twelve actors play over twenty-eight roles, shifting neatly from being locals with thick, Newfoundland accents to "come from away" folk hailing from the U.S., Germany, England, India, Africa and all parts in-between. Each actor plays a named character but also "others." In fact, the entire cast listing boasts a main character's name followed by the ubiquitous "others." Jumping from character to character (and rarely leaving the stage) had to be either an actor's meatiest challenge or a terrifying nightmare. Christopher Ashley received a well-earned Tony for directing this amazing show, his expertise readily apparent at every turn.
We meet Claude at the very start. Played with humor and wit by Kevin Carolan, Claude is the mayor of Gander and he immediately takes charge quickly settling a dispute with the picketing bus drivers whom he needs to transport 7,000 tired and hungry people to God knows where. He'll figure that out later. Claude is ably assisted by Beulah (the stalwart and kind Julie Johnson) who opens up her school academy to the "plane people." At first, it's 400, then 600, then 700 of them. Others are taken to churches, auditoriums, schools and people's homes. Beulah strikes up a friendship with Hannah, (Marika Aubrey) who is desperate for information about her son, a firefighter in Manhattan. Beulah understands. Her son is a firefighter, too.
One by one their individual stories are added to the larger one of how the kindness of strangers can make you feel welcome even in the worst of circumstances and really, how much more alike we are than different. In one of the most touching scenes, Andrew Samonsky, who plays Kevin T, one half of a gay couple (Nick Duckart plays his partner, Kevin J.) remembers a hymn he'd almost forgotten, and he begins to sing it. Others from different faith traditions begin to sing and pray as well - each in their own way, poignantly demonstrating the universality of the holy.
Friendships are formed, love is found, and love is lost. And there is bias and fear to overcome toward Ali, a devout Muslim American man from Connecticut (Nick Duckart gives a touching portrayal). Some can't see past the Muslim garb and worry that Ali presents a danger to one and all. But one of the locals offers him sanctuary in the library, making herself an ally and a friend in an instant.
The people of Gander didn't think twice about up-ending their lives for complete strangers. And the stakes were high. 3,000 people had just been killed by people on planes. And yet, for five days they took care of the "plane people" in their midst.
"It's what you do. You'd do the same," they said. I wonder. Would we? Here, on the other side of 9/11 - when the country is being asked to fear and shun people fleeing for their lives - will we take care of the strangers in our midst? As we contemplate "the wall," we would do well to remember the example of our Canadian friends. Within a few hours' time, their tiny town doubled with "refugees" and they took it in their stride. Imagine what the land of the free and home of the brave could do if we set our minds to it. Where there's a will, there is a way.
One last note. In my experience as a reviewer, there are three kinds of standing ovations. There's the rolling ovation where a few audience members start it off then a few more join in until everyone finally gets up to join them. Then there's the fake-out ovation where people are really more interested in grabbing their coats, jackets and purses. They obligingly stand still for a few moments and clap before heading for the exits. And then there's my favorite kind of all - the spontaneous-combustion ovation. It's the one where the audience members burst out of their seats clapping and whooping their full-throated joy and approval of a show. Such was the case with the "Come From Away" audience, and I was one of the first ones out of my seat.
COME FROM AWAY
Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Presented by www.shnsf.com
Golden Gate Theatre
Now thru February 3
Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy