Theatre Review: Come From Away
Come From Away
Book, Music & Lyrics by Irene Sankoff & David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Broadway—Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street, New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan
April 19, 2017
Canadians’ reputation for being modest, likeable, and upright is epitomized by the new Broadway musical Come From Away, based on true events directly after September 11, 2001 in the small town of Gander on the island of Newfoundland. Then, islanders took in thousands of passengers from numerous aircraft, grounded for a week after the terrorist attacks. The citizens of Gander were folksy, self-effacing, and tolerant, also spirited and determined; the play reflects the people.
Come From Away was originally developed, in predictably unassuming fashion, at a college in Ontario, beginning in 2012. Its book, music, and lyrics writers, married team Irene Sankoff & David Hein, had one other credit, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Come From Away earned its way to NYC, taking a winding road through festivals including Goodspeed Musicals Festival of New Artists, and having successful runs at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Seattle Rep, and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., as well as venues in Toronto. It is partially based on interviews done with the real townspeople of Gander, some of whom are portrayed on stage.
The production tells its story by interspersing speeches to the audience and scenes with a kind of Irish-Canadian folk music, both exuberant and elegiac. On stage, the people of Gander are shocked to hear of the 9/11 attacks and amazed to see that their large airport, once a much-travelled landing field for stopovers, now barely used and ready for renovation, has been filled with over thirty planes, ordered by the FAA to land, and containing about seven thousand passengers, almost doubling the size of the town. The Mayor, police, and local shop owners band together to feed and house the diverse group of stranded travelers. The dynamic female pilot of one of the jets takes a leading organizational role; a British businessman strikes up a friendship with a Texas divorcee; a sophisticated gay couple finds their relationship fraying; an Egyptian man on board faces suspicion and resentment from shell-shocked passengers. Meanwhile, the Gander veterinarian boards planes to care for caged animals: cats, dogs, even rare chimpanzees. Reliable news reports are hard to come by and a New York mother worries about her son, a fireman who may have been at Ground Zero. Friendships are forged, divisions overcome. With death and regression around the world, in Gander, there is life, and progress.
The performers, under the direction of Christopher Ashley (Memphis), achieve the cool trick of playing both Gander residents and visiting passengers. Moved around stage with precision and theatrical acumen, the cast of twelve seems to be twice or three times the size. Who’s actually responsible for the absorbing presentation is a little unclear. Noted choreographer Kelly Devine is listed as being in charge of “Musical Staging”. What’s the difference between that and Direction, you ask? Uh…dunno. But at some point, agents, unions, contracts, and negotiations were surely utilized to hammer out the distinction. (Maybe Devine just didn’t want to call the moves by actors-not-dancers choreographed.) The set by Beowulf Boritt, all over Broadway recently, with Hand To God and A Bronx Tale, is straight and serviceable: a wooden back wall and chairs, and a revolving turntable.
Throughout, there is high drive and a total lack of cynicism. Seemingly aware—and afraid—that the topic of the terrorist attacks would turn off audiences, Come From Away deals only in passing with details of 9/11, figuring smartly that we’ve had our fill of it. As if the horror represented by the attack is enough conflict for everyone, interaction between the players is loud, fast-paced, and mostly amiable. This is a tough equation to make work, and, as the passengers and townspeople adjust to each other, finding common ground, etc., the lack of what might be called drama threatens to make the piece a minor effort. The score, which has lovely passages in “I Am Here” and “Stop the World” and enjoyably banging rhythms in the opener “Welcome To The Rock,” is otherwise unmemorable and fails to solve that issue. (Pilot Beverley’s 11:00 number “Me and The Sky” and its message of how terrorism hurt…feminism? A little pushed.) But it must be said, by the close, Come From Away’s simple-in-a-good-way, stubbornly empathic/positive vibe moves us with its integrity.
All of this is helped along enormously by the cast. This group of ordinary-looking, extraordinarily gifted actor/singers brings many faces to the front who had previously been in the background. These include: Jenn Colella, as both the pilot and a local love-starved woman; Joel Hatch, the Mayor and many smaller roles; Lee MacDougall, the British businessman, et al; Q. Smith, the suffering New York mother and Astrid Van Wieren, as her supportive Gander compatriot; Sharon Wheatley, the Texas divorcee. These artists honorably carry the title of “character actor,” making it a hard-fought merit badge. Congrats also go to the band, with Music Supervision by Ian Eisendrath, featuring accordion, Irish flute, Uilleann pipes, Mandolins, drums and Bouzouki. The “encore” after the curtain call betters some of the official show.
Come From Away lacks the selling points of most of the other new musicals now open on Broadway, a long expensive list this year. It is not based on a well-known movie (Anastasia, Ground Hog Day, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, A Bronx Tale); nor does it feature stars (War Paint—Patti Lupone & Christine Ebersole; Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812—Josh Groban; Hello, Dolly!—Bette Midler.) But ironically, this piece, and another one without celebs or familiarity, Dear Evan Hansen, will probably vie for the Tony Award later this spring.
Maybe with its large, beautiful country and not enough people to totally screw it up, Canada has always enjoyed life too much to create great art. There are few Canadian novelists, painters, classical composers, or filmmakers on the top list of their field, historically or now. [Editor’s Note: Um, Alice Munro? Margaret Atwood?] Actors, too—even though you have to like Ryan Gosling as a current leading man, and the casts of Saturday Night Live and SCTV with their hilarious comic Canadians, so numerous and beloved there’s no need to recount them here. And, okay, pop/folk with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, and Alanis Morissette. Theatrically, in the 1980s-90s, grittily incisive playwrights Judith Thompson and George F. Walker had brief moments in America. But Come From Away may be a high point. During the matinee this reviewer attended, the theater was filled with middle school groups, checking their phones and texting, noisily gossiping, but otherwise digging the show. Raised on Long Island, not Canada, and not inclined to be sanguine about distractions in the audience, I was influenced by the effort and outlook on-stage—and only shushed them once.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In 2015, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival.