Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Come from Away is the true story of five days in remote Gander, Newfoundland, beginning on September 11, 2001. The town, with a population of just 9,000 souls, became the landing spot for 38 jumbo airplanes flying passengers to the United States from Europe when the terrorist attack crisis prompted the closure of all American airspace and forced those planes to land in Canada. The combined mass of nearly 7,000 passengers and crew members needed shelter, food and comfort. The good, unassuming folks of Gander rose to the occasion, setting up shelters in every public building, opening homes for "the plane people," as the stranded travelers were called, cooking mountains of food, and much more.
The phrase "come from away" is how Newfoundlanders refer to those who are not native to their own terrain, a more genteel term than perhaps calling them "foreigners." Everything about the way the citizens of Gander (and neighboring, smaller towns) welcomed and cared for those who had "come from away" was genteel, kind, and generous. As depicted in this unlikely but wholly successful musical telling of those amazing five days, it was also drizzled with a good share of humor. To be clear, though, the humor is the warm humor that arises when we acknowledge the peculiarities of the human condition, and is never for an instant mean-spirited or delivered at anyone's expense.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, professional as well as marital partners, wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show, an astounding achievement. Prior to Come from Away, the couple were best known for My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a show with a sizable cult following but not what you would call high profile. Over a sleek 100 minutes, without intermission, Sankoff and Hein conceived of a narrative in which the 16,000 humans, between plane people and Newfoundlanders, are represented by a small sampling of characters that illustrate remarkably well, the vast range of what occurred and how it affected those folks.
Among the locals we meet are Gander's mayor and its police chief, a school teacher whose gift for organizing meals and shelter rivals the best of FEMA, the head of the striking school bus drivers union (called upon to set their discord aside and run buses to transport the plane people), a brand new TV reporter (over her head with this breaking story), and a caretaker for the local animal shelter who brings her skills and compassion to assist some four legged passengers aboard the planes.
Travelers we get to know include a woman desperate to find out if her firefighter son in New York City is safe, a woman from Texas returning from a visit with family in France, a withdrawn Englishman forced by his boss to attend a conference, a Muslim man treated with suspicion in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a New Yorker spooked by the absence of locks in Gander, and two men whose relationship becomes increasingly strained as they await clearance to fly home. The group also includes a pilot named Beverly, based on Beverly Bass, the real life first woman pilot to fly for American Airlines, who was indeed among those stranded at Gander. Beverly experiences the closing of air space in a much more personal way than the others. At the same time, she emerges as the core of the show, the passengers' link between their unscheduled stop and their chance of getting home.
The show is not quite sung-thoughthere are brief scenes of spoken dialoguebut for the most part, the songs tell the story, both in their melodic variety, much of which draws from local Irish, Scotch and English heritage, and in the highly literate integration of narrative into the songs. The opening number, "Welcome to the Rock""the Rock" being the local nickname for Newfoundlandsets the landscape, describing daily life there, and the concerns of its people, before the attacks of 9/11. It is a lively, boastful number which concludes with a note of finality that allows for a large round of audience applause.
After that, the songs meld together, along with spoken dialogue, so seamlessly it is not until two thirds through the show that the next opportunity for the audience to let loose with applause occurs with "Screech In," a raucous scene set in a pub, where locals initiate some of the plane people as "honorary Newfoundlanders." This is the only real dance number in the show, with rollicking choreography by Kelly Devine," and when it ends, the audience goes wild, not necessarily out of enthusiasm for that number, but for the opportunity to vent a release from the swelling emotions the show engenders.
While there is not a great deal of dance, there is a great deal of movement throughout the show. Director Christopher Ashleywho received a Tony Award for his work heresmoothly shifts the assemblage of the twelve-member cast to represent different groups of people, moving from one location to another, with such clarity that this complicated collection of vignettes and circumstance never loses its way. The simple setting is by Beowulf Boritt: sky-high trees on either side of the stage giving reference to Gander's remote and wild appearance to the plane people, with a wash of blue sky speckled with clouds behind. An assortment of straight-back chairs are used in myriad purposes, including the narrow rows of crowded airplanes. Howell Binkley's lighting design effectively casts the moods of five days and four nights over Gander, while sound (Gareth Owen) and costumes (Toni-Leslie James) add to the totality of this strongly unified work.
While Come from Away is not a show dependent on star performances, it requires expert actors who can flip back and forth easily among different characters, speaking in different accents, using no more than a hat or jacket to set them apart from the person they were a moment ago. Every member of this company excels. Becky Gulsvig, who has played Beverly from the beginning of the national tour before the COVID-19 shutdown, continues in the part, authentically conveying Beverly's determination to remain strong throughout the ordeal, only revealing her grief in the beautifully composed and powerfully sung "Me and the Sky."
Other songs that especially make an impression include "Costume Party," with the plane people describing the sense of being other than themselves, wearing borrowed clothes in a place where no one knows them; "Prayer," giving voice to everyone's hopes for their ordeal to end safely in the wake of unprecedented terrorism; and "Stop the World," a tender wish to keep alive feelings that arise between people brought together by the most unlikely and unwelcome of circumstances. All of the music is given splendid renditions by a tireless onstage band of eight led by music director Cameron Moncur.
Gander has an airport far larger than its size would suggestby some accounts it was once the largest in the world. It sits on the edge of the Atlantic, the first or last spit of land where planes flying between Europe and North America could refuel in the early days of transatlantic air travel, when planes did not hold enough fuel to get from London or Paris to New York or Boston nonstop. With the advent of jumbo jets, far fewer planes stop at Gander. There has been ongoing local debate whether to tear down their humongous airport and build a smaller one in line with diminished needs. But for the seven thousand who found safe harbor at Gander Airport during that week in September, 2001, this oversized terminal was a godsend.
Today, with our nation so deeply divided, making every concernfrom how we combat the pandemic to stewardship of our environment to the very foundation of what it means to be a democracyfodder for hateful, irreconcilable partisanship, this true story, so pure-hearted, it feels like a fairy tale, a wonderful, soothing and uplifting balm. Come from Away is as stirring as theater gets.
Come from Away runs through January 23, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $146.00. Educator and Student Rush tickets available for all performances, $30.00, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID. For ticket and performance information call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For tour information go to comefromaway.com.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Irene Sankoff and David Hein; Director: Christopher Ashley; Choreographer: Kelly Devine; Set Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: Howard Binkley; Sound Design: Garth Owen; Hair Design: David Brian Brown; Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen; Music Supervision: Ian Eisendrath; Music Director and Conductor: Cameron Moncur; Dialect Coach: Joel Goldes; Casting: The Telsey Office, Rachel Hoffman, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager: Shawn Pennington.
Cast: Kevin Carolan (Claude and others), Geno Carr (Oz and others), Nick Duckart (Kevin J./Ali and others), Chamblee Ferguson (Nick/Doug and others), Becky Gulsvig (Beverly/Annette and others), Sharriese Hamilton (Hannah and others), Christine Joy Johnson (Diane and others), Julie Johnson (Beulah and others), James Earl Jones II (Bob and others), Julia Knitel (Janice and others), Sharone Sayegh (Bonnie and others), Jeremy Woodard (Kevin T/Garth and others.