‘COME FROM AWAY’: The cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

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COME FROM AWAY
Book, music & lyrics by Irene Sankoff & David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
(212-335-1873), http://comefromaway.com/

 

By Scott Harrah

The inherent goodwill in humanity and the kindness of strangers during a global crisis are both ongoing themes in this brilliant sleeper hit musical.  A musical about what happened when nearly 7,000 people from 38 transatlantic jets were forced to land and stranded in tiny Gander, Newfoundland, Canada on September 11, 2001 may not sound like “feel good” material to fill one hour and 45 minutes. “A 9/11 Broadway musical? Really?” one first thinks. However, it is this show’s ability to surprise and touch even the most cynical, jaded New York theatergoer that makes it so unusual and emotionally powerful.

Most of us probably forgot about or never paid attention to the little human interest story (overshadowed in the press by the grisly articles dispatched from Ground Zero in Manhattan, the Pentagon in DC and Shanksville in PA) about how a remote town in Maritime Canada opened its homes and hearts to thousands unable to return to the USA when planes were grounded as U.S. airspace closed on 9/11.

Beowulf Borritt’s barren set of weather-beaten trees and little else vividly depicts Newfoundland.  The show opens with the rousing number “Welcome to the Rock” (a reference to the fact that Newfoundland looks like a giant rock in the North Atlantic “between there and here”), and the cast sings in twangy, hard-to-decipher Newfie brogues (a strange hybrid of Canadian and Irish dialects).

The cast’s frenetic energy and the Celtic-themed music command our attention.  Broadway rarely gets original shows that are not adaptations of a film or book, and this one is based on real-life events and has a docudrama feel to it.  On paper it sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but the fact that it does beautifully makes Come From Away all the more trenchant.  Based on interviews with the people of Gander, Canadian book and songwriters Irene Sankoff and David Hein (a married songwriting duo) have assembled a pop opera that simply tells the stories of the diverse characters stuck in Gander without being trite or sentimental.

There are the “come from aways” (Newfoundland slang for outsiders): Texans, Brits, a Jew, Muslims, Germans, a female American Airlines pilot (Jenn Colella), as well as the townspeople, ranging from a teacher to an animal rescue worker. The actors play many dual roles. Caesar Samayoa, for example, alternates between a gay man and a Muslim Egyptian (with cogent conviction). Other subplots include a budding romance between an older Texas woman (Sharon Wheatley) and an Englishman (Lee MacDougal), and the experiences of a neophyte TV reporter (Kendra Kassebaum).

There are jokes about Newfoundland and Canada in general (complete with Tim Hortons gags), and odd local customs like kissing a codfish (don’t ask). Amazingly, for such a short show, there is also plenty of depth here, and the people aren’t portrayed as cartoons or stereotypes

Songs like “28 Hours/Wherever We Are,” ”On the Edge” and “Me and the Sky” (Ms. Colella’s showstopper about being the first woman pilot of a commercial jet) and more jump out at us with the melodic, emotional force we used to experience in old show standards.

It is easy to see why this show went from a workshop at a small Ontario college to mountings in Seattle, La Jolla, Washington, DC, a major Toronto production and now Broadway.  Although the story is set in Canada, it pays tribute to one of the darkest periods in modern American history.

In addition to the outstanding cast, expertly directed by Christopher Ashley, there is innovative choreography by Kelly Devine, which contains bits of country and lots of Irish-style Riverdance moves. The narrative is expertly woven through nonstop movement and song.

Come From Away is unlike anything we’ve seen on Broadway, a musical that celebrates and glorifies humanity, understanding and the reasons to embrace the differences of people we don’t know, while showing how no one is really that differentwithout coming off hokey or contrived. This is a musical with a simplistic yet sobering message of unity for the divided, dark America of 2017, making the show relevant, topical, and fun. It’s a new type of never-before-seen, uncharted musical territory much like Hamilton was, and should also make musical-theater history.

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published March 12, 2017
Reviewed at press preview performance on March 11, 2017

 

‘COME FROM AWAY’: The cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

 

‘COME FROM AWAY’: Kendra Kassebaum. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘COME FROM AWAY’: Jenn Colella & cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clip from Come From Away, ‘Heave Away’

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