By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Welcome to the Rock. “You are here, at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world,” sings the ensemble in the opening number of Come From Away, the irresistibly warm-hearted Broadway hit that’s arrived on the Jube stage this week — in an American touring production that’s brought a story of Canadian-ness back to its country of origin.
And with this modest declaration in song, the story of what else happened on Sept. 11, 2001 finds its geographical coordinates, its true-life source, and its groove. In the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York, 38 international flights were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. And a hospitable little town, population 9,000, “on an island in between there and here,” welcomed, housed, and fed nearly 7,000 stranded passengers in a newsworthy demo of generosity and kindness in a blasted world.
The unusual musical, by the Toronto husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is culled from real-life interviews with the townsfolk and the passengers. And there’s another Canadian story in its improbable route from a Sheridan College student workshop incarnation in honour of the 10-year 9-11 anniversary to premieres at Seattle Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse and on to massive successes in New York and now London. Come From Away has landed at its rapturous reception here on a jet stream of raves, major awards (including Dora Awards, a Tony for director Christopher Ashley, and now multiple Olivier nominations across the pond), and sold-out runs. The Mirvish Toronto production is now booking through September.
In this improbable and massive success — in New York, it’s among a handful of shows that regularly gross more than a million dollars a week — it was materially assisted by timing. Its celebration of hospitality and generosity arrived on the big-stage international theatre scene at the moment when America seemed particularly mean, stingy, xenophobic, closed to come-from-aways, and unusually receptive to an antidote, and from a country they’d barely noticed before.
Yes, it’s not as if there’s no reason to be cynical in theory about Come From Away. There are so many ways it could have gone wrong, way wrong. A musical about 9-11? A musical about the upside of 9-11? Think about it. A musical without a star, about people being nice?
And, in truth, there are occasionally moments in Come From Away when you can’t help resisting the irresistible that’s coming at you: the perplexed and unnerved passengers have landed, albeit as a byproduct of a horrifying disaster they don’t know about yet, in a place where there are quirky individuals but nary an unkind jerk, or racist, or homophobe, much less an out-and-out villain. Friction is for the passengers, not the exemplary locals. As one of a splintering gay American couple both named Kevin notes near the outset, Newfoundland is “like going back in time.”
But Come From Away is so smartly put together, musically and theatrically, and the piece so imbued with a self-deprecating and distinctive sense of humour, that it would take a rocky soul indeed not to be warmed by its unwavering celebration of human connectedness.
The stage, as designed by Beowulf Boritt, is simply appointed. It’s dominated by a few bare trees, some wooden chairs, and a back wall of wood that turns out, at crucial moments, to be slatted (lighting designer: Howell Binkley). In one corner, a really excellent eight-piece band, including pennywhistle, fiddle, and bodhran, stands ready to deliver the Celtic-flavoured folk-rock of the score. And their rocking curtain-call number is celebratory, in all the right ways: it’s a kick-ass finale.
The characters are winsomely individualized and quirky — an effect amplified by the reverb that they’re based on real people. The dexterous 12-member ensemble in this fine touring production play the passengers and the Gander-ites interchangeably.
The fateful day in which 7,000 people from everywhere will spend that night and the next four, begins with Gander’s small-town daily morning rituals. “Everything starts and ends at Tim Horton’s,” declares the crusty Gander mayor, played outstandingly played by Kevin Carolan. True, there’s something you might want to call labour friction pertaining the school bus drivers. But, hey, that whole business stops for coffee too.
Other standouts include Julie Johnson as Beulah the teacher who bonds with another mother (Danielle K. Thomas), traumatized by the lack of information about her New York firefighter son. As Bob, a wary New Yorker who can’t quite believe his wallet is safe on the Rock, James Earl Jones II is genuinely amusing in his incredulity. And Becky Gulsvig as a groundbreaking pilot delivers, in compelling fashion, the show’s only bona fide solo, Me And The Sky. The nature of flying, her true passion in life, changes forever on 9-11. And in the course of the song she realizes it.
Of the two couples in the piece, one comes together and one falls apart in the “who knows where” of the outer edge of Canada. Christine Toy Johnson as a middle-aged Texas divorcée, finds herself drawn to an awkward Englishman (Chamblee Ferguson, whose accent pushes its luck) who works for an oil company. In the least convincing scene, designed to show off comically the natural open-mindedness of the locals — some of their relatives are gay! — the couple of Kevins (Andrew Samonsky and Nick Duckart), who are used to being cautious about revealing their relationship, are caught off-guard by the progressive attitude of Gander.
It’s at moments like that Come From Away pushes a wee bit too hard at its sentimental thought that on the periphery of tragedy, no one is untouched by Canuck worthiness. Much better is the way Come From Away astutely lays off co-opting an epic tragedy. It offers fleeting glimpses, in the mother’s vigil by the phone, and the harsh excluding treatment of the passenger from the Middle East (Nick Duckart), whose fortunes in the post-9-11 world will, as you know, be rocky.
Mostly it confines itself to odd, and endearing stories on the edge of that terrible main event: the rookie reporter on her first day, who lands the story of her career; the SPCA rep who gets a career high, too, when she saves a rare chimpanzee from the hold of the plane.
The sharp inventiveness of the stagecraft is fun to see. An unobtrusive re-arrangement of the chairs, and voilà, we’re inside the plane, or the air traffic control tower, or the school. And the performances, as 12 actors of every size and shape reinvent themselves as 40-plus characters, is a match.
The rollicking production number, a highlight bash in the Legion Hall, is riotously contagious. It feels like a party. If they’d been passing the Screech and the cod around, I’m sure we’d all have had a slug and a smooch. It’s a world afflicted by a deep mistrust of The Other, where, on the other hand, everyone has come from away, it’s the right moment for a musical like this.
Come From Away
Broadway Across Canada
Created by: Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by: Christopher Ashley
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through Sunday