Review: ‘Come From Away,’ A Celebration of Our Better Selves
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, March 27, 2017
It’s not often that a Broadway musical transcends mere entertainment and provides an essential salve for the wounds of the country. The year 2016 was without question divisive, wrenching, and damaging to the American psyche. The new Broadway musical Come From Away reminds us of our collective potential to come together and heal those wounds.
Of course, the irony here is that the lesson of Come From Away comes not from from our own country, but from our nurturing neighbor to the north.
First, some background. On September 11, 2001, some 38 planes from around the world were forced to make emergency landings in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland. At one time, Gander served as a refueling point for many transatlantic flights, but modern jumbo jets with larger fuel tanks rendered the large air field in Gander relatively moribund.
In a matter of hours, as the 38 planes landed, the temporary population of gander nearly doubled, from 9,000 to 16,000. Over the next five days, the people of Gander and the surrounding communities welcomed the “plane people” into their town and their homes, forging indelible human bonds that continue to this day.
Co-writers Irene Carl Sankoff and David Hein, a married couple, and themselves Canadians, have taken the stories of the Gander residents, and how they welcomed the folks who “come from away,” and turned them into an intricate patchwork, the sum of which is as rousing, entertaining, and tremendously moving as any other show currently playing in New York.
Many people have scoffed at the very idea of a “9/11 musical,” but Come From Away is so much more than that. Sankoff and Hein have used the filter of Gander and its people as an opportunity to explore human selflessness. The show never gawks, sensationalizes, or trivializes the horrific events of that day. Rather, it renders the incomprehensible in real, richly human terms.
Sankoff and Hein merely hint at the actual events of 9/11 at various points through the show, and even then, in glimpses. One of the Gander residents exhorts a chatty neighbor to “turn on the damn radio.” When the plane passengers finally are allowed off the planes after 28 hours of confinement, all we see are their stricken faces as they gasp in horror at their first glimpse of the television images and begin to grasp the enormity of the day. Once the plane passengers have gone home, the mayor of Gander turns on the TV, sits down, and just starts to cry, the first time he’s had a chance to do so.
Despite the somber events surrounding the show, Sankoff and Hein’s score to Come From Away is anything but elegiac. In fact, it’s rather rousing, inflected with spirited local flavors of sea chanty, bluegrass, and a healthy dash of Celtic. Even better, Sankoff and Hein demonstrate a deft hand at choosing which moments to musicalize.
For instance, “28 Hours” nimbly captures the confusion and frustration of when the planes first land and the passengers are stuck inside them for more than a day while the authorities try to figure out what to do with them. And, in one of the show’s many emotional highlights, Sankoff and Hein mesh the various religious traditions represented in the show in “Prayers,” a stunning moment of communal worship and grief.
If the show falls short in any way, it’s in its ambition to do too much. The libretto tends to tell versus show a bit more often than is advisable. Sankoff and Hein have admirably condensed 16,000 people into one narrative, but the tapestry could have been trimmed down even more.
This point paradoxically becomes clear with “Me and the Sky,” a powerful song that provides backstory for Beverly Bass, the pilot of one of the planes, and her fight to become one of the first female airline pilots, and the first to command an all-female crew. But the song also underscores that none of the other characters is given the same depth.
Director Christopher Ashley’s staging is, for the most part, slick and efficient, achieving the show’s multitude of character and location changes with dazzling effectiveness, conveying a strong sense of place with the use of only a dozen or so chairs. (Choreographer Kelly Devine’s stomp-and-slap choreography, however, plays a bit too much like an awkward Steven Hoggett knock-off.)
But Ashley does include a handful of rather odd staging choices, including a quizzical moment when a convention-full of cardiologists volunteer to clean the overstressed latrine facilities with a heightened air of macho heroism, a would-be comic moment that failed to land.
Much of the production’s success comes courtesy of the strong and protean ensemble of twelve performers, each playing a variety of roles. Jenn Colella proves once again that she’s one of the most reliably strong and appealing performers on the New York stage. Chad Kimball makes a warm and welcome return to the Broadway stage, as does the charmingly irascible Joel Hatch.
In the main, Come From Away remains a tremendously touching celebration of the healing power of community. At the risk of sounding cliché, Come From Away just may restore your faith in humanity.
Come From Away at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Running time: One hour forty minutes, no intermission. Open run. Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley; musical staging by Kelly Devine; scenic design by Beowulf Boritt; costume design by Toni-Leslie James; lighting design by Howell Binkley; sound design by Gareth Owen. Cast: Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Kendra Kessebaum, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, and Sharon Wheatley.
Cover: Jenn Colella and the cast of ‘Come From Away;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.