There is something miraculous about “Come From Away,” the Tony-winning musical on tour and playing this week in Spokane.
It is a show that at least on paper sounds like it could be terrible. A musical about the events surrounding 9/11, and how a community of good people went above and beyond to help others who needed it? I mean, the potential for a saccharine, schmaltzy nightmare is off the charts.
The miracle? There are a handful, actually. “Come From Away” avoids being overly maudlin, it perfectly balances heart and humor, and it entertains on the strength of great music, skilled performers and clever storytelling.
Set in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “Come From Away” tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, a remote Canadian town that hosted 38 passenger jets and their nearly 7,000 passengers when American airspace closed for the first time in history.
As the show opens, it’s a pretty typical Tuesday in Gander. The mayor (Kevin Carolan) starts his day at Tim Hortons, where he regularly chats with neighbors and constituents. School is back in session for the year, but the bus drivers are on strike. When news from the States arrives over the radio, and the residents of Gander realize that trans-Atlantic flights will be diverted to their underused airport, they jump to action. The bus drivers and the town pause the strike so the buses can transport passengers to the shelters. Beulah (Julie Johnson) and Annette (Marika Aubrey) and the school prepare to take in as many as 700 people. Bonnie (Kirsten Peace) with the local ASPCA starts inquiring about the needs of any animals on board, while Janice (Steffi DiDomenicantonio) begins the first day of her TV journalism career on one of the biggest news days in modern history.
Meanwhile, these same 12 actors change hats – literally – to portray the airlines passengers and crew, including Beverly Bass (Aubrey), who was the first woman captain for American Airlines. There’s Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), who is frantic for news of her son, a New York City firefighter, Ali (Nick Duckart), a chef who comes under scrutiny for being a Muslim from the Middle East, Kevin J (Duckart again) and Kevin T (Jeremy Woodard), a gay couple whose relationship is tested by the experience, Bob (James Earl Jones II), who can’t believe how nice all these Canadians are, and Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson), two strangers who meet under stressful circumstances and fall in love.
Drawn from the stories of those who experienced it, “Come From Away” deftly portrays their stories as a series of snapshots. We don’t get a lot of depth here – Bass’ backstory is the only one explored at any length – but we get enough. The emotions are real. When the passengers, some of whom had been on their planes for more than 24 hours, get to the shelter, they stop, glued to the TV as they take in the horror and sing the powerful number “Lead Us Out of the Night.”
Then there’s “Pray,” as Beulah leads Hannah to the Catholic church where they light a candle for her son. Elsewhere, a rabbi connects with a Jewish man who had fled Poland as a child, two Hindi women pray, and Ali finds space to answer his faith’s call to prayer. It’s a powerful moment.
What is most surprising about “Come From Away” is how funny it actually is. The book and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, strikes a really nice balance with the humor. There’s Kevin J, the New Yorker who can’t believe he’s stuck in a place “where they eat rainbows for breakfast,” and the Walmart clerk who thanks one of the passengers for their business before asking, “Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?” Bob, a Black man from New York, cannot get over how kind everyone is. When his host, the mayor of nearby Appleton, suggests he just go into the neighbors’ backyards and take their grills for a community cookout, Bob is convinced he’s going to be shot. Instead, he’s offered tea. “After that,” he says, “I stop worrying about my wallet so much.”
The sets are minimal and the effective choreography involves the actors moving chairs and tables around the set. The music, performed by an eight-piece band on stage, is Celtic flavored and highly catchy.
“Come From Away” really is a complete package. It offers clever storytelling, laughs and toe-tapping tunes. It also has hope and heart – two things we can never have too much of.
“Come From Away,” reviewed Tuesday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, continues through Sunday as part of the STCU Best of Broadway series. For tickets and information, visit broadwayspokane.com.
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