Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Come from Away
National Tour
by John Olson


Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II,
Harter Clingman, and Cast

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Arguably, the golden age of musicals may have peaked in 1956 and 1957, when three of its most enduring musicals—My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and West Side Story—opened within 21 months of each other. It's too early to tell, but we may have seen a similar triumvirate of great musicals opening in a less than two year span from August 2015 to March 2017 with Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and the one that recently arrived in touring production form at Chicago's Cadillac Palace for a three-week stay, Come from Away. That statement could be the subject of a separate essay, but the case for Come from Away as a piece deserving of classic status and being likely to achieve it is strong. Just as classics like South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof found lasting truths in stories set in very specific times of crisis, Come from Away's story of community in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks delivers a message of hope in the midst of crisis that can transcend specificity and achieve timelessness.

The book and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (they also composed the music) are a model of efficiency in telling the story of the 7000+ people who were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada after North American flights were grounded following the attacks and the 10,000+ residents of Gander who hosted them for five days. In 110 minutes of intermissionless stage time, Come from Away's libretto takes us from a seemingly normal late summer morning in Gander through the initial disbelief following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, to the confusion and anxiety felt by the grounded and stranded passengers as they sat on the tarmac of Gander International Airport, to the growing sense of community with these small-city dwellers as well as their fellow passengers, and finally on to some final closure on the experience.

With a cast of 12 actors all playing multiple roles, the writers focus on a handful of characters while giving the audience a sense of the many people who were involved and the diversity of the group. Christopher Ashley won a richly deserved Tony Award for his direction of the Broadway production. Together with choreographer Kelly Devine, he created a scheme of movement in which the actors seamlessly and with only modest changes of wardrobe and wigs, play a multitude of characters in a performance style that is highly presentational but never seems forced or excessively theatrical. The story is told mostly through direct address narration, delivered alternately by the full ensemble and individual actors with minimal dialogue. Sankoff and Hein's music and lyrics are more musicalized scenes than songs, as in the style of Sondheim's Passion, and whether sung or spoken by individuals or the full company, delivered in a driving rhythm that is suitably urgent but not rushed. With the rhythmic cadences of so much of its lyrics and dialogue, it may remind one of its musical theatre contemporary, Hamilton.

Come from Away is similarly economical and strikingly theatrical in its production design. Beowulf Boritt's set is mainly a wall of rough-hewn wood that has doors and other elements popping from it, along with a few key elements to specify place, like lighted signs for Molson and Tim Horton's. Howell Binkley's lighting design aids in setting time and place, while the costumes by Toni-Leslie James are just enough to establish the nationalities and origins of the various characters, whether from Gander or the many other nations whose citizens landed there that day.

For this national tour, which began last October, Ashley has assembled a first-rate cast of Broadway pros along with up and comers, including two Chicago-based actors. The performances remind me of Ashley's gift for comedy and character. Best known among the Broadway vets are Andrew Samonsky (the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific) and Becky Gulsvig (School of Rock and Legally Blonde). The Chicagoans include the young character actor Harter Clingman, who makes a convincing Ganderite; and James Earl Jones II, who lands a lot of the musical's funniest lines. Other standouts in the cast whose credits are mostly in regional theatre are Christine Toy Johnson as the Dallas divorcée Diane, and Chamblee Ferguson as the shy Brit she falls for during their stay in Gander.

The main question as to the ultimate longevity of Come from Away will be the ability for other directors and companies to match the skill of Ashley's staging. When regional rights become available, it's certain to be a favorite, given its uplifting theme and relatively modest production requirements, and those 12-person casts will have a high bar to reach in comparison to the cast now on tour.

Regardless of how Come from Away is judged in future decades, it, along with the aforementioned Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, is more than refreshing in comparison to much of the Broadway product today. In an environment where many new musicals are pop-musician bios or adaptations of non-musical theatrical films that struggle to avoid their contrivances in transitioning to musical theater, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Come from Away are all essentially original pieces conceived as musicals that feel completely organic. (True, Hamilton is based on Ron Chernow's biography, but it seems fair to call Miranda's musical original). Perhaps that's why these three continue to sell out on Broadway while things like The Cher Show and Pretty Woman are closing after less than a year. The fact that originality sells on Broadway better than seemingly marketable contrivances is a message of hope, indeed.

Come from Away through August 18, 2019, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago IL. For tickets and further information, visit www.broadwayinchiago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit comefromaway.com.


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