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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Come from Away
La Jolla Playhouse

Also see Bill's review of Motown the Musical


Jenn Colella and Cast
On the surface, there's nothing particularly unusual about Come from Away, the new musical by Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein. It's a pleasant tale about a group of Newfoundlanders who help out some stranded visitors, bonding with them in the process. The Celtic-tinged music provides a wry, wistful, heartfelt and ultimately celebratory backdrop to a simple tale well told.

Not far below the surface, though, lurks a darker, far more emotional, specter: the visitors were many, 38 plane-loads to be exact, and they were stranded because their flights were headed toward the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

It is fascinating how this one component of the story adds considerable weight to it, turning pleasantry into something much more substantial and ultimately cathartic.

The 12-member cast portray the townspeople of Gander, a community with an aging airport that used to serve as a refueling stop for flights between the U.S. and Europe, as well as the passengers on one of the flights, which was headed for Dallas/Fort Worth. The script was constructed out of interviews with both townspeople and visitors, and while some details have a melodramatic ring to them, they were probably not made up.

Some of the cast members shine as community members, while others shine as visitors. Each cast member has a chance to stand out to a degree—and does—but, importantly, I think, the whole is represented as a group effort.

That group effort is reflected in the music, and most of the songs are performed by the entire cast. Jenn Colella, who recently performed in Broadway's If/Then, takes a key role as the captain of one of the planes and gets her own song, "Me and the Sky." Hers is the only solo, and to be honest, it slows the show down and prompts the audience to notice that there hasn't been an intermission (and there isn't one—the run time is 100 minutes).

The other "name" actor in the cast is Chad Kimball, who starred in Memphis on Broadway. Mr. Kimball portrays both a local union leader and a gay businessman who is traveling with the man (Caesar Samayoa) who is his partner, both in business and in romance. Mr. Kimball is memorable in both roles, but he's particularly memorable leading a setting of the Prayer of St. Francis, an emotional high point.

Three of the cast members (Petrina Bromley, Lee MacDougall, and Astrid Van Wieren) are Canadian, and Ms. Bromley and Ms. Van Wieren are Newfoundlanders. Their presence lends authenticity to the production. The other source of authenticity is the variety of dialects spoken by the cast. Kudos to dialect coach Joel Goldes for magnificent work.

The remaining cast members form a splendid ensemble and sweep the audience into their arms in the process. They are Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Lee MacDougall, Q. Smith, Sharon Wheatley, and San Diego favorites Geno Carr and Allison Spratt Pearce. The cast list in the program includes two understudies, Amanda Naughton and Michael Turner, and in the spirit of honoring the group effort, so have I.

Director Christopher Ashley is in top form here. Working on the wide but not particularly deep proscenium configuration of the Playhouse's Potiker Theatre, he expertly manages the shifts in scene and character. Credit the scenic design of Beowulf Boritt, the costume design of Toni-Leslie James, and the lighting design of Howell Binkley in making all these shifts possible.

Mr. Ashley also puts the eight-piece Celtic band on stage and brings some of its members into scenes from time to time. He even gives the band its own curtain call, which transitions into a rousing post-show performance. Credit sound designer Gareth Owen for keeping all of these forces in balance, and in the spirit of the group effort, the band members' names are: Ian Eisendrath (music director), Alec Berlin, David Maldonado, Tiffany Sieker, Ben Power, Michael Pearce, Tim Foley, and Ben Morrow.

There's a bit of the infamous Stockholm Syndrome going on here, with the airline passengers and crew bonding with their townspeople "captors." This bonding is variable in strength and mostly wears off quickly, but for a while everyone's a better person for it. So, too, with audiences: by experiencing this show you'll feel like a better person, even if only for a little while.

Come from Away runs through July 12, 2015, at La Jolla Playhouse and starts performances November 13 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the production partner. Tickets are likely to be scarce in both venues.

La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of Come from Away, book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley, choreographed by Kelly Devine, and Music Supervision by Ian Eisendrath. A co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it will be presented November 13 December 13, 2015.

Performs Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00pm; Sun at 7:00pm; and Sat/Sun at 2:00pm at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets available at the theatre's box office, by calling (858) 550-1010, or at www.lajollaplayhouse.org.


Photo: Kevin Berne

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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