Kevin Carolan knew he wanted to be a part of “Come From Away” before it even opened on Broadway.
“This is a unique story, and I knew that early on,” Carolan said by phone from Seattle, where the U.S. tour is running ahead of its opening in Spokane on Tuesday. “I sensed something special. My dad told me about the book ‘When the World Came to Town,’ … and I wanted to be a part of it.”
He auditioned to be among the show’s standby performers ahead of its Broadway run, which opened in 2017 and is coming to an end in October. That didn’t work out, but he made an impression. “When it came around that I could get a chance to come in for the tour, I was elated.”
“Come From Away” tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 commercial airliners were redirected mid-flight after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 closed U.S. airspace. Gander and its neighboring communities took in more than 6,600 passengers and crew from all over the world for five days until their travels were allowed to resume.
The musical – with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein – is based on former Spokesman-Review reporter Jim DeFede’s book “The Day the World Came to Town.” As directed by Christopher Ashely – he won a Tony for his work – “Come From Away” intertwines stories of the “plane people” and their hosts with a dozen actors shifting roles, shifting wardrobes, shifting accents.
The characters include an Egyptian chef who faces extra scrutiny because he’s Muslim, a mother frantic to hear from her son, a New York City firefighter, a gay couple whose relationship is tested by the situation and two strangers who meet under stressful circumstances to form a deep bond.
Among the many hats Carolan wears in “Come From Away,” the most prominent is that of Claude, Gander’s mayor.
“Grace under pressure is the term I use for Claude,” Carolan said. “There’s a sense of leadership that is hard to describe, where there is a sense of command that can be taken, but also a sense of warmth and humor and cooperation.”
The show is filled with real, heartbreaking emotion. But it’s not a downer.
Carolan often hears this from audiences: “ ‘I didn’t expect to be laughing so much.’ ”
“If they have an idea, at least a little bit, of what the show is about, they’re thinking a little somber, or at least have that idea coming in,” he said. “The style of music, this Celtic sound that this musical has really perks you up a little bit, and it doesn’t take long, really, for you to fall into this and lean back into their seat. It’s about them coming back and saying, ‘I knew I would be affected by this, but I didn’t know there would be so much funny stuff happening here.’ ”
For Carolan, who toured the U.S. as Amos Hart (Mr. Cellophane) in “Chicago,” and originated the role of Teddy Roosevelt in Disney’s “Newsies” on Broadway, getting to spend this much time in “Come From Away” has been a joy.
“It’s an extraordinary story and it’s an extra ordinary way to tell the story. I’m a little spoiled. I don’t know what I want to do after this job ends, but it’s got to be something completely different. I’m completely spoiled for musicals. We’re only about 110 minutes with no intermission – we like to joke we’re at the bar before the ‘Hamilton’ crowd gets out, by about two drinks.
“I never get tired of telling the story; I never get tired of telling the story to different people in different parts of the country.”
He most loves to hear from audience members who had no clue what they were getting into when they took their seats in the theater.
“They’re my favorite audience members,” Carolan said. “It was a general manager at hotel we were staying at in Arizona, and he had seen me in the lobby, and said to me, ‘I saw the show the other night and I don’t see shows, I don’t know from anything. I had no idea what I was seeing. I didn’t know what kind of show I was seeing, and I had no idea that was possible.’ And to get somebody’s imagination like that, because we ask a lot of our audience. We are asking them to suspend their disbelief to watch 12 men and women and musicians create a story of thousand of people stranded for five days and to do it in a way that is going to touch you, that is going to bring you to tears, that is going to make you laugh and ultimately walk out there feeling good about humans, which is something we need to be doing more of.”