BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY Uplifts in Spite of Terror
Making its St. Louis debut at the Fabulous Fox Theatre right now, a commanding drum beat kicks off a high-energy opening number to welcome the audience of Tony award-winning Come From Away: A New Musical. On its first North American tour with a book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, you'll land on "the rock" where, for the next 100 entertaining minutes, you'll be treated to a heaping helping of musical hospitality from the residents of Gander, Newfoundland. It is that ill-fated day of September 11, 2001, when 39 planes from around the world transporting close to 7,000 scared and angry passengers - as many as live in the whole town of Gander - are grounded here. Residents assemble quickly and come together as a community to welcome, house, and feed the "plane people" after the unexpected guests emerge angry, hungry, and tired, having been trapped on their planes for hours. The guests will need toiletries, pillows, dinners, and diapers. They'll need telephones and computers to communicate with their loved ones back home. And they'll need a place big enough to sleep everyone comfortably for several days.
There is some disagreement on how best to transport the sheer numbers of folks and whether or not it is safe or not to rescue any animals that might be aboard the bellies of the planes, since all American planes are currently suspect of carrying explosive devices. Other challenges to hosting this sudden influx of multicultural visitors include the absence of a kosher kitchen, the lack of interfaith spaces, and of course, there are language barriers, which Gander's comically inexperienced news correspondent attempts to report as she is thrust into the world spotlight, covering what surely will be the biggest story of her career.
Focusing closer on a few of the characters is what holds this musical's somewhat meager plot together. It is all at once funny and heartbreaking as we get to know Diane from Texas, who bonds over this calamity with Nick from Great Britain, even though they are an extremely unlikely pair. And there's the couple Kevin and Kevin, who find themselves suddenly living among many who are possibly homophobic. Hannah is a mother from Queens, whose son is a firefighter helping to quell the damage back home at Ground Zero. The first female pilot for American Airlines, Beverly Bass, unfolds the story of how she landed at this momentous place in world history. And as these actors seamlessly transition from "plane people" to the Newfoundlanders they also play with a slight turn of the back or an unnoticed switch of a hat, tensions arise from being trapped all together here with limited resources and a hurricane on its way. Luckily, they make lemonade of lemons and pass their time enjoying cookouts, drinks, and lots of toe-tapping fun. It is a fascinating peek into the lives of wildly different folks from wildly different life paths, all thrown together by chance.
The ensemble cast is comprised of Kevin Carolan (Disney's Newsies), Harter Clingman (Peter and The Starcatcher), Nick Duckart (In the Heights), Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig (School of Rock the Musical), Julie Johnson (Memphis), Christine Toy Johnson (The Music Man), James Earl Jones II (The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess), Megan McGinnis (Les Misérables), Andrew Samonsky (South Pacific),Danielle K. Thomas (Avenue Q), Emily Walton (August Osage County), Marika Aubrey, Jane Bunting, Michael Brian Dunn, Julie Garnyé, Adam Halpin, and Aaron Michael Ray.
Creative and clever choreography uses a grouping of mismatched chairs in various configurations as set pieces. The lighting is gorgeous and the scenic design stark but effectual. The back wall is slatted and functions as the belly of the plane among other places and as a starry sky, while neon signs light up on trees to transform the space into a tavern or Tim Horton's. The band, under Ian Eisendrath's excellent supervision, is tucked into the wings among tall tree trunks. But while the folksy sound of fiddles and Irish flutes is most electrifying, at times the instruments are louder than the vocals, making it difficult to hear the lyrics.
Come From Away is ultimately a feel-good story, if there's any good at all to be felt about the chaos and tragedy of 9/11. It is a charming curiosity that materialized completely by chance when strangers found themselves all alone together for days while the world's eyes were trained on the Pentagon; Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania; and the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
It's the tale of a little town called Gander - its people, its character, and its hospitality; a cast of every day heroes that will make you fall in love with a place you may not have even heard of before. Who wants to be a Newfoundlander? You will, after seeing this enchanting musical directed by Christopher Ashley at The Fabulous Fox, playing now until May 26. Show times are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m., Sunday afternoons at 1 p.m. There will also be a 6:30 p.m. evening performance on Sunday May 19 and a matinee performance on Thursday May 23 at 1 p.m. Be among the first to see it by securing your tickets at https://www.foxtheatre.org/events/detail/come-from-away.