Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Come from Away
Also see Gil's review of High School Musical
Come from Away tells the true story of the 38 airplanes that were diverted on 9/11 to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, when the United States airspace was closed and the close to 7,000 passengers on those planes had nowhere to go. The Gander residents quickly mobilize to house, feed, and care for the grounded passengers. As the Newfoundlanders, who found the population of their small town instantly doubled, and the "plane people," many of whom don't speak English and who, at first, have no way to reach out to their loved ones back home, struggle with the uncertainty of what happened while also facing their fears and trying to overcome their differences, they discover that they have much more in common than they first thought and they aren't that different after all. The plot and songs interweave the stories of dozens of actual people into a poignant tale about community and shared humanity.
The title of the show comes from what Newfoundlanders call visitors to their island. Creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein interviewed Gander residents and passengers who were on the planes that returned to Gander on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th events. They took those interviews and crafted the narrative and songs in the musical with many characters based on the people they spoke to. While Sankoff and Hein focus the majority of the piece on the kindness of strangers, they also don't shy away from the racial and religious bias that the events of that day brought to the forefront. There is also an abundance of humor throughout. But the humor is never out of place and the emotional moments are never forced or cloying. The score uses a combination of Celtic and folk-rock music with the cast often using the stomping of their feet and clapping of their hands as a natural form of percussion. The quick shifts in the plot from one character to another and the energetic music combine to form a driving force that gives an urgency to the story and propels it forward through its 100-minute, one -ct length.
Under the Tony-winning direction of Christopher Ashley, the cast of 12 play dozens of parts, both the stranded people on the planes and the empathetic residents of Gander. With a quick change of dialect, an instant addition of a piece of costume, and subtle shifts in body language, the six men and six women in the cast perfectly morph from one role to the next.
There isn't a weak link in the cast, with each playing one central character in addition to numerous others. As Beverly Bass, one of the pilots on one of the grounded planes, Marika Aubrey gets the show's only solo song, "Me and the Sky," and delivers it with a range of heartfelt emotions. The cast also includes: Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson, as an American woman and Englishman who unexpectedly find romance; Julie Johnson as Beulah, a Gander teacher who connects with Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), a woman who can't find any information about her son who is a New York City firefighter; and Nick Duckart and Jeremy Woodard, who play boyfriends who are both named Kevin and find being stranded has an impact on their relationship. Also, Kevin Carolan plays Gander's amiable Mayor, Claude; Steffi DiDomenicantonio is an eager Gander news reporter on her first day on the job; Kristen Peace is Bonnie, a Gander resident who is concerned for the animals that are also on the planes; Harter Clingman is Gander's no-nonsense policeman Oz; and James Earl Jones II, who has perfect coming timing, is Bob, a Black man who is confused at first by the generosity of the Gander townspeople.
Ashley's direction is some of the best I've seen in a musical in the past decade and he deservedly received the Tony for his efforts. His work, when combined with Beowulf Boritt's set design, effectively creates the various locations on the island and the inside of the grounded planes with just the use of some chairs and tables and a few props, which the cast seamlessly move around. There is also a turntable that is beautifully used to shift and move us from one location to the next. Seeing how the movement and alignment of the chairs forms a bus from a plane or how the tables are swiftly moved to create a cliff that two of the stranded passengers climb shows how our imaginations, simple set elements, and proficient staging can create beautiful stage images before our eyes. The musical staging by Kelly Devine delivers high-energy choreographed movement. Toni-Leslie James' costumes work extremely well so we always know which character each actor is playing, and Howell Binkley's lighting is bright and effective throughout. Joel Goldes' dialect coaching achieves clear delineation of each of the many characters portrayed by the entire cast. The eight-piece onstage band, led by Cameron Moncur, is superb.
Come from Away is a musical with a huge heart and its main theme of how people can be selfless and display compassion toward complete strangers in a time of need is one that will most likely move you to tears. While the emotions the characters experience are raw and impactful, especially since they are based on real people and real events, there is also the driving theme of kindness and hope that is weaved throughout the story that brings light to the darker moments. Come from Away also proves that the combination of a true story that depicts how even the worst of times can bring out the best in people, that beauty can come from tragedy, the power of live theatre can create a cathartic, shared experience.
Come from Away runs through June 19, 2022, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit https://comefromaway.com.
Music, Lyrics, and Book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein