Stage Door Review

Come From Away

Monday, February 19, 2018

✭✭✭✭✭

music, lyrics & book by Irene Sankoff & David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley

• David Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

February 18, 2018-January 20, 2019

 Elgin Theatre, Toronto

February 5-December 1, 2019

• Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

December 13, 2019-March 1, 2020

“Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere,

in the middle of who knows where,

there you'll find...

Something in the middle of nowhere,

in the middle of clear blue air,

you've found your heart, but left a part of you behind”

The question everyone will be asking is, “Is the new production of Come From Away with its all-Canadian cast as good as the previous production that went to Broadway?” The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Not only is the all-Canadian cast as good as the previous cast, but it feels more cohesive. Besides that, Come From Away is even better the second time you see it because you don’t to concentrate as much on the story and can focus instead on the masterful direction and fantastic performances. So for those who have somehow not seen Come From Away, waste no more time – go see it. For those who have seen it before, it’s time to see it again.

When Come From Away first played Toronto in 2016, the main point of curiosity was how its creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein could create a musical based events connected with the September 11 attacks in 2001. The idea of a “9/11 musical” seems perverse. As audiences soon realized, Sankoff and Hein focussed not on 9/11 itself but on how the small community of Gander, Newfoundland, coped when 38 planes scheduled to land in the US were diverted there when American airspace was shut down.

In 2011 Sankoff and Hein went to Gander for the tenth anniversary of the attacks and interviewed local people and passengers who had returned for the occasion. They gathered stories about what it was like when a town of only 9000 people had to host an unexpected influx of nearly 7000 visitors. The first story is thus of a small community facing a huge challenge, setting aside divisions and showing their guests the kind of humble, heartfelt hospitality they would show any people in distress. The parallel story is of their terrified guests, unsure of why their planes have been diverted, and how they come to accept and even revel in the local hospitality that for their few days in Gander helped them realize that humanity’s capacity for spontaneous care and compassion also exists in a world suddenly made to seem unsafe and frightening.

Now that it is 2018, Come From Away no longer feels like a “9/11 musical” but rather a musical about care and compassion that happens to use Gander’s response to the its influx of guests as its central example. Now that the musical’s topicality is no longer foremost, its universal nature now shines through even more forcefully than before and makes Come From Away feel less like a commentary on specific events than a classic musical about human nature.

One of the greatest ideas built into the structure of the show is that the cast of twelve play both the townspeople of Gander and the so-called “plane people” of one of the stranded aircraft. In a cleverly arranged series of episodes we see the interactions of the two groups – sometimes from the townspeople’s points of view, sometimes from that of the plane people – but gradually the points of view begin to merge. This means that all the actors have the chance to show their versatility in playing at least two or more roles, each with a different accent – Newfie plus American or other. Every member of the cast has a chance to shine. But more importantly this structure helps communicate the central message of the play. The action may start with an “us” and a “them”, but by the end both groups feel they are all one community, just as the cast in already all one group. Those who saw the musical last time it played Toronto will confirm that the new cast is every bit as talented as the previous cast.

The Tony Awards cannot get rid of the notion that all show must have “stars” and so singled out the actor playing the American Airlines pilot as a Best Supporting Actor. In fact, Come From Away is truly an ensemble musical, with no one part dominating the others. It is a collection of stories of the townspeople and the plane people over the five days they were together, and the action continually shifts from following one story to the next over this period of time.

Though all cast members play both townspeople and plane people, the actors’ main characters tend to be associated with one group with their secondary character in the other. Lisa Horner’s main role, for example, is Beulah, a no-nonsense elementary school teacher whose native grit and sense of humour help her become the main organizer of how to clothe, feed and shelter the new hoard of guests. Horner also plays an elderly New Yorker on the plane whose panic becomes one of the passengers’ main annoyances as is her voice at the karaoke mic.

Cory O’Brien plays Oz, the local constable, but also more than one of the passengers, including a rabbi which allows O’Brien to show off his classically trained voice to fine effect. George Masswohl plays Claude, the quirky mayor of Gander who holds court at the local Tim Hortons despite not drinking coffee or eating donuts. Besides one of the passengers, Masswohl is also effective as a surprisingly unprejudiced local and as an older man who poignantly in the presence of O’Brien’s rabbi finally can acknowledge his Jewishness. The scene called “Prayer” where Sankoff and Hein depict Christian, Muslim and Jewish characters, each praying in their own way simultaneously, is perhaps the musical’s most moving scene and the one most emblematic of the musical’s celebration of diversity.

Among the others, Steffi DiDomenicantonio is very funny both in her primary role as Janice, a young woman on her first day as a television reporter who has to cope with the biggest news story ever to hit Gander, and in her secondary role as panicky stewardess on a plane. Meanwhile, Kristen Peace plays Bonnie, in charge of the local SPCA, who braves the wrath of security officials guarding the planes to rescue and care for the many pets and other animals trapped with the luggage who would have died without her care.

Of those whose main characters are the plane people, Saccha Dennis is especially moving as Hannah, a mother of a New York firefighter who spends most of the action desperately trying to find out any news of him and sings of her plight poignantly in “I Am Here”. Eliza-Jane Scott’s main role is that of Beverley, the American Airline pilot who had also made history as the first female captain for that company. Scott gives an inspiring rendition of Beverley’s signature number “Me and the Sky”.

Ali Momen and Jack Noseworthy* will be best remembered as the gay couple Keven J. and Kevin T., who run a company together but react very differently to being stranded. Both are at first fearful of how the “rednecks” will react to them, only to find that they couldn’t care less. Keven T. turns out to be the more gregarious of the two even joining a local “screeching in”, while Kevin J., hangs back distressed at how outgoing he finds his partner to be. As Keven T., Noseworthy has the chance to show off his lovely voice when Kevin feels the need to pray and sings the contemplative “Prayer of St. Francis”. Noseworthy also is kept bust as the townsperson Garth, the stubborn head of the school bus drivers’ union, who decides to call off a strike in order to help the passengers. Momen, meanwhile, also plays one of the regulars at Tim’s as well as the passenger Ali, an mild-mannered Muslim whom the rest of the passengers now regard with suspicion. He pleads several times with Beulah to help with the cooking, and eventually we find out why.

As strains form in the Kevin and Kevin relationship, attractive blossoms between two middle-aged passengers whom fate has accidentally thrown together. One is British businessman Nick, played by James Kall, and the other is Dallas resident Diane, played by Barbara Fulton. The hesitant transition in this couple from strangers to people who might gladly be more than friends is one of the many pleasurable sideplots in the musical and is sealed with their thoughtful duet “Stop the World”.      

A parallel character to the two Kevins is the Black New Yorker Bob, played with a natural sense of humour by Kevin Vidal, who is afraid of how the predominantly all-White community of Gander will react to him. His passage from fear of being shot or robbed to deciding to become an honorary Newfoundlander is yet another positive story in this collection.        

Seeing the work the second time also makes clear how well-constructed it is. Christopher Ashley’s direction makes the changes from townspeople to plane people feel both natural and easy using only the rearranging of a set of mismatched chairs to represent everything from the local Tim’s to the plane or bus or shelter or pub. Kelly Devine’s choreography for the musical numbers seems to grow naturally from the movement of Ashley’s blocking. The result is a musical where the acting and singing of the cast and the folk music-inspired playing of the nine onstage musicians combine in the united goal of telling a story in the most effective way possible.

As happened at the opening night of Come From Away in Toronto in 2016, so again at this matinee premiere the real-life counterparts of the characters were invited on stage to meet the actors who played them. Claude, now the former mayor of Gander, again gave a rousing speech but this time he emphasized how much the musical was concerned with “compassion and hope”. This kind of show demonstrates how people really and unselfconsciously acted according to the Golden Rule. It shines a bit of light on the goodness that can arise in humanity in the midst of disaster. The mayor said at this time we need to hear this kind of story more than ever. The audience with its sustained, roof-raising applause and cheers could not have agreed more.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive. As of January 8, 2019 Jeff Madden replaces Jack Noseworthy.

Photos: (from top) Barbara Fulton, Kevin Vidal and Cory O’Brien (centre) with cast from Come From Away; Eliza-Jane Scott as Beverley (foreground) with Kristen Peace, Steffi DiDomenicantonio, Barbara Fulton, Lisa Horner and Saccha Dennis; Ali Momen as Kevin J. and Jake Noseworthy as Kevin T. (foreground) with cast from Come From Away. © 2018 Matthew Murphy

For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.