Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Once on This Island
Come from Away is set in the small town of Gander in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. It chronicles the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent five days when thirty-eight planes carrying just under 7,000 passengers were forced to land there following the terrorist attacks in the United States. The story of how a community of only 9,000 residents fed, cared for, and welcomed strangers is an interesting one, especially as seen from both the perspective of the townsfolk and those from the planes.
The show is the creation of Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who share credit for book, lyrics and music. The pair interviewed locals and returning passengers during the 10-year reunion in Gander, and crafted the book around their accounts. Come from Away uses copious narration played directly to the audience, but it doesn't feel like the easy way out, as is often the case with shows that are heavy on exposition. While a story about events surrounding 9/11 are sure to evoke many sad memories, this musical emphasizes the power of hospitality and the goodness within people. The plot is heartwarming and uplifting, and surprisingly contains plenty of appropriate humor.
The songs by Sankoff and Hein are very accessible, yet different from most Broadway scores, with influences of folk, country, pop, and traditional musical theater, but also incorporating the regional styles of the setting. From the pulsating "Welcome to the Rock" that opens the show, to "I Am Here," a mother's desperate plea to learn the fate of her New York City firefighter son, and the raucous "In the Bar/Heave Away" montage, as passengers are made official members of the community, what is heard is refreshing in both words and music. The standout number is "Me and the Sky," conveying the perspective of one of the pilots on both her career and the use of planes in the attacks. The integration of dialogue and song which takes place in a number of spots is noteworthy as well.
Although the show features the stories of numerous people, the musical is told with just a cast of twelve, with each actor portraying multiple characters. The seamless manner with which the actors change from one character to another, often with only the addition or deletion of a hat or jacket (or in some cases, no clothing change at all), is astounding and theatrical magic at its simplest and best. Each of the versatile actors plays at least one resident of Gander as well as one of the "plane people," and often a few of each.
Marika Aubrey is vocally impressive as pilot Beverley/Annette, the showiest track in the musical. Chamblee Ferguson (Nick/Doug) and Christine Toy Johnson (Diane) get plenty of laughs as the couple who fall in love during the grounding. James Earl Jones II (Bob) interprets his many roles with great skill, and Danielle K. Thomas is emotionally impactful as Hannah. Everyone else is likewise deserving of praise: Megan McGinnis (Bonnie), Harter Clingman (Oz), Emily Watson (Janice), Kevin Carolan (Claude), Brandon Springman (understudy for Kevin T./Garth), Nick Duckart (Kevin J./Ali), and Julie Johnson (Beulah).
As wonderful as those performers are, the true stars of this show are director Christopher Ashley and musical stager Kelly Devine. The fluidity of the staging, with actors transforming from one person to another in the blink of an eye, is magnificent. With little set or costume variations, the story and characters are clearly established and communicated by the stage movement, a fine example of non-dance choreography. Ashley uses a row of chairs in almost constant motion to define the setting and assist with scene transitions. The seven-piece onstage band is led by Cynthia Korman Westphal, and does an excellent job throughoutbe sure to stick around after the actors exit the stage for a brief but vibrant closing number by the band centerstage.
Beowulf Boritt's attractive yet minimalistic set design consists of two groups of trees, a dozen chairs, a turntable, and a few tables. The lighting by Howell Binkley is up to his normal high standards, and the everyday costumes by Toni-Leslie James capture the characters well while also allowing for quick transitions.
Come from Away isn't a big spectacle and may not be a household name, but it's a true audience pleaser and deserving of the significant praise and brisk ticket sales it is commanding on Broadway and on tour. Though it centers around events we all wish wouldn't have taken place, it tells of the decency and humanity of people during crisis, and speaks to the hope and love of which we are all capable. The stellar cast executes the commendable score, story, and direction skillfully.
Come from Away continues at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St, Cincinnati OH. through September 29, 2019. Tickets may be ordered by calling 513-621-2787 or visiting https://www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information on the tour, visit https://comefromaway.com.