Review: Come From Away, A New Musical

It’s difficult not to think of Broadway when any subject related to live theater, musicals, acting or New York City surfaces. Even those of us not well-versed in the multitude of shows that come and go can name the big ones: The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, etc. During my most recent trip to Manhattan, I had the privilege of seeing two magnificent shows, Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, both relatively new to the Broadway scene in comparison to some of the long timers.

Dear Evan Hansen quickly rose to fame, earning rave reviews and winning the Tony for Best Musical in 2017. I walked into the Music Box Theatre expecting to be blown away and the show did not disappoint.  My real surprise of the weekend, however, came the day after Dear Evan Hansen when my family and I entered the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and took our seats to watch Come From Away for the next 100 minutes.

I had a vague idea of what constituted the show’s content prior to seeing it. Namely, it would tackle the subject of 9/11 and how a town in Newfoundland, Canada contributed to the safety and welfare of airline passengers affected by that tragic day in history. While I normally jump at the chance to experience any musical I have not yet seen, my family’s selection of this particular show came primarily at the request of my father. My parents (especially my father) are proud Canadians, and with the help of my many Canadian relatives, have gifted my sister and I a generous amount of time in Ontario, as well as a lifetime of treasured memories packed into almost 20 years of annual family vacations. So while I have never been to Newfoundland, I took my seat, nursing a healthy amount of patriotism.

Photo Credit: New York Theatre Guide

I walked out of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre utterly speechless, intent on grabbing a taxi to JFK or LaGuardia so I could personally thank the country for its efforts in the wake of unthinkable circumstances, and for setting the stage of one the most fantastic musicals I have seen to date.

To provide a brief overview, Come From Away tells the true story of how, on the infamous day of September 11, 2001, 38 planes were diverted to the town of Gander, Newfoundland due to a closure of the U.S. airspace. In the subsequent week, the citizens of Gander and nearby surrounding towns are unexpectedly tasked with feeding, clothing, and housing the 7,000 stranded passengers. The musical follows the lives of various townspeople and passengers, each in possession of humorous and heartwrenching stories. 

Photo Credit: CBC Radio

As a child participating in a school play for the first time, one of the first things you are told is that any role, no matter how small, is important.  In Come From Away, there are no big roles, and there are no small roles either. There are just important roles. Composed of a cast of twelve, every actor portrays multiple characters.The fast-paced tempo of the show requires them to switch in and out of accents (Canadian and varying origin) at the drop of a hat.  Featured characters include:

  • A young gay couple, both named Kevin, who were flying back to Texas when their plane was diverted to Gander.
  • The mayor of Gander, Claude, largely responsible for rallying the people of Gander and nearby towns to aid in this massive conflict
  • Bonnie, a citizen of Gander whose primary contribution was caring for the dogs, cats, monkeys (yes, monkeys) and other animals trapped with the luggage on the planes.
  • Beulah, a citizen of Gander and one of the top organizers for the welcome effort at Legion hall where many of the passengers are housed.
  • Hannah, a New Yorker whose son is a firefighter in New York City. Her story largely focuses on her wait by the phone in Legion hall for her son to call confirming his safety.
  • Oz, a constable in Gander credited with a variety of organizational and personal efforts to smoothly transition the passengers into Gander for the duration of their stay.
  • Beverly, one of the pilots who was tasked with landing in Gander. She possesses an inspiring backstory as she was the first ever female captain for American Airlines.
  • Nick, an Englishman flying from London to Texas on business.
  • Diane, a Texan returning to Dallas from London.
  • A young TV reporter from Gander, new to the job and soon tasked with reporting one of the largest events ever to occur in her town.
  • A professional chef treated kindly by the town but with suspicion from fellow passengers as he is of Muslim origin.
  • A gentleman from New York who becomes increasingly charmed and soon blown away by the hospitality he receives from the townspeople.

While these people may be what we dub “main” characters, they are not the only characters.  One moment you will be tracking Oz onstage and in a single, fluid transformation, he becomes an out-of-towner.  This musical is breathtaking in that every actor has mastered these transformations individually as well has developed a synchronicity that allows them to flow as an entire cast. Minor, unnamed characters that you assume would be forgettable, pop up in unexpected moments to continue a storyline you suddenly remember had captivated your attention only a short while ago.

Photo Credit: CBS News

The music itself is outstanding.  Songs are used to educate the audience on personal histories and backstories, portray the crisis of preparing Gander to shelter 7,000 stranded passengers and liven the atmosphere in celebration of newly formed (and soon to be long-lasting) friendships. The majority of songs are ensemble numbers, allowing for the creation of a spirited energy that reverberates around the theater. Come From Away also showcases a lovely amalgamation of dialogue and music that contributes to a tangible sense of unity among the cast.

As far as solos go, Beverly performs a particularly jarring one - “Me and the Sky”- recounting her career timeline with an emphasis on conquering gender barriers in her field. Her song segways into the impact of being informed as she must safely fly her passengers to a strange city with little information to help her understand what events are unfolding in America. Audience members are left feeling both awed and deeply humbled by her accomplishments.

Photo Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for The New York Times, wrote in his Review: ‘Come From Away,’ a Canadian Embrace on a Grim Day that “even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.” It is truly the story that captures the hearts of the audience, making it difficult to leave the theater without shedding at least a few tears. The citizens of Gander are beyond commendable for their efforts in caring for the passengers of the planes, and Come From Away does a spectacular job retelling this story in big moments of drama and little moments of humor and kindness.  

Audience members sit riveted as they experience the anxiety of wasting away on a plane for 28 hours before deboarding is permitted. The passengers had no knowledge of the tragedy that recently struck America nor were many of them able to contact their families to inform them of their emergency landings.

A little while later, however, audience members smile and even feel the urge to dance themselves as they watch new relationships unfold before their eyes.  Townspeople open up bars and restaurants to entertain the people who have just arrived. Celebrations commence as drinks are poured and hospitality is saluted in an intimate and welcoming environment. Townspeople even go as far as to freely give their barbecues away to catalyze town wide feasts, a phenomenon that greatly charms the gentleman from New York. Moments like these don’t simply display the kindness of the townspeople but fill the audience with the genuineness of it.

If you find yourself in New York City or in another area where this musical is touring, I highly recommend you attend a performance. It is an unforgettable tale of the generosity and vigor of the human spirit. I believe we could all use a reminder that when crisis strikes, humans are capable of stepping up to the plate.

 

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