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BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY Makes Triumphant Return to DC at Kennedy Center

BWW Review:  COME FROM AWAY Makes Triumphant Return to DC at Kennedy Center
The North American Tour of COME FROM AWAY; Photo by Matthew Murphy

I saw a pre-Broadway production of Come From Away at Ford's Theatre in 2016 and pretty much fell in love with the show during the energetic opening number, "Welcome to the Rock". A little over three years later, the little musical that could, now a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, returns to DC with an equally satisfying national tour now playing the venerable John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Selling out the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater for good reason, Irene Sankoff and David Hein's (book, music, and lyrics) inspiring musical stirs emotions even with a repeat viewing. Set in the small Newfoundland town of Gander during the week of September 11, 2001, we see the power of shared human experiences in the face of tragedy.

Let's be clear, Come From Away, directed by Christopher Ashley, is not a 9/11 musical though the tragic event does set the stage. When the US Government made the decision to close the US airspace, planes en route to the United States were diverted to Canada - Newfoundland, an island on the northeastern tip of North America, to be specific. Why there? Though remote, the little town of Gander is home to a large international airport that could accommodate many planes. It was historically a stop off fueling point for planes makes the transatlantic trip, now unnecessary for huge jets. In 2001, the town simply hadn't got around to tearing it down even though few planes passed through every day.

The citizens of Gander sped into action and provided shelter, food, and water - and a great degree of emotional support - to the displaced passengers and crew from all over the world. The diverse group of "plane people" experienced the unique Newfoundland culture and hospitality at its finest as they were welcomed with open arms and learned, first hand, the door is always truly open. Some passengers like Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) from Texas and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) from London found joy in the face of immeasurable sadness that would last to this day.

The writers based their characters for the musical on real world passengers, crew members, and Newfoundland citizens that they interviewed early on in the writing process. Through the course of the tight storytelling, we learn a little about each - though some more than others - by how they respond to the unexpected circumstances and relate to one another. In the hands of this uniformly terrific group of actors (portraying multiple characters, some named and some not), each person is played in a believable way with a lot of care and attention, right down to the accents (dialect coach is Joel Goldes).

There are the Newfoundland citizens like Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh), a local vet determined to care for every dog, cat, and...rare chimp stuck in the hold of the 38 planes. A big-hearted Newfoundland school worker, Beulah (Julie Johnson), set on ensuring every passenger is taken care of, including Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) whose firefighter son is missing in New York. There are town officials like Oz (Harter Klingman) and Claude (Kevin Carolan), and new local reporter Janice (Julia Knitel), all tasked with some pretty difficult jobs.

We also meet some of the passengers. There's Kevin J. (Nick Duckart) and Kevin T. (Adam Halpin at my performance; Andrew Samonsky returns to the role on December 26) whose relationship is tested. As previously mentioned, Nic and Diane find unexpected friendship and maybe much more. Bob (James Earl Jones II) finds small town life to be an adjustment from the urban jungle, but is ultimately forever changed by the experienced. Ali (Nick Duckart), a passenger from Egypt, experiences some dark moments given his ethnicity/nationality, but is willing to put his unique talents to use to help his fellow stranded passengers.

Of all the characters, we probably learn the most about Beverly (Marika Aubrey), an American Airlines captain from Texas, who has to come to terms with being in a leadership role while struggling personally with the fact that the thing she loves most in the world - a plane - was used as a bomb. She shares about her past and in present in one of the best songs in the show, "Me and the Sky," well sung by Ms. Aubrey.

The experience of nameless passengers, such as an African man (James Earl Jones II) traveling with his family, also provide an opportunity to explore the power of shared experiences even with linguistic and cultural divides. He and his wife (Julie Johnson) are quite scared when they encounter men in Salvation Army uniforms, but learn quickly to put fear aside when a quick-thinking staff member takes the Bible he's clutching and flips to a verse about not being afraid. This moment, along with one where passengers and locals alike find comfort in their faiths ("Prayer") - though very different - are some of the most compelling in the entire musical.

Musically, the show features an array of styles, many influenced by the local Newfoundland cultural traditions. Each ensemble number, sung with gusto, is perfectly staged by Kelly Devine, and draws you in to the point that you really want to travel to Newfoundland to experience the local scene for yourself. Of these, "Screech In" is one of the most memorable. The talented vocalists find their match in an equally gifted band, conducted by Music Director Cameron Moncur. The inclusion of instruments you'd likely find in a local pub (fiddle, uilleann pipes, bodhran etc.) make for an authentic listening experience. The orchestration work (August Eriksmoen) is first rate.

Beowulf Boritt's minimalist scenic design similarly captures local flavor and the town's remote location. Howell Brinkley's lighting design effectively highlights emotional moments without detracting from the naturalistic approach to telling the story.

All told, Come From Away, provides a powerfully inviting experience and is perfect for this holiday season. It preaches hope and love in a way that can be appreciated by everyone.

Running Time: One hour and forty minutes with no intermission.

Come from Away plays the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Eisenhower Theater - located at 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through January 5, 2020. The run is sold out, but consult the Kennedy Center website or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 for last minute availability.

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From This Author - Jennifer Perry