By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Come From Away wasn’t Away long, in real time. And yet, the world has changed in such unmistakeable ways since March 2019, when the American touring production arrived here, bringing a story of Canadian-ness back to its country of origin.
A cataclysmic pandemic has united the world and divided the people in it. America has drifted into chronic violent fractiousness; the idea of Canada as an oasis from that aggressively divisive individualism has been tarnished. “Freedom” doesn’t mean what it did. And neither does “human connection.”
So would we see an unusual and irresistibly warm-hearted Broadway hit about the sheer spirit of human generosity and kindness through different eyes?. I wondered about that. Read on.
You know the real-life story of the musical created by Toronto husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein. In the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York, 38 international flights were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland as American air space closed for the first time ever. A little town of 9,000 in a country America had barely noticed before, on “an island between there and here” as the opening number has it, welcomed 7,000 stranded passengers to the The Rock. And the townsfolk housed, fed, and clothed the fearful, frustrated strangers for five days in a newsworthy demo of hospitality.
Based on Sankoff and Heine’s real-life interviews with the townsfolk and the passengers, it was developed as a student workshop in Michael Rubinoff’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan College, timed to the 10-year anniversary of 9-11. And the route that included inaugural runs at Seattle Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse took Come From Away to Broadway in 2017, then the West End. And it’s been a massive success ever since, scooping up raves, sold-out houses, Dora Awards, a Tony for director Christopher Ashley, and multiple Oliviers along the way.
Come From Away is, in so many ways, an unexpected come-from-away to the Broadway hit playbook. There’s no star (except a whole community) and no real villain (except the state of the world). It is (as many have pointed out in amazement) a musical about nice people being nice. Even beyond all that, it eschews spectacle and special effects for smartly stylized, inventively ‘low-tech’ stagecraft. No, you will not see a 747 land onstage. And the 12-member cast play both the Newfoundlanders and their unplanned visitors, with just a change of accent or hat or jacket.
Beowulf Boritt’s design is framed by a stand of bare tree trunks, and a back wall of wood that turns out to be slatted when slivers of light glint through. Howell Binkley’s lighting design is a stellar, transformative participant in the storytelling. The cast reconfigures a set of mismatched chairs, to suggest the interior of a plane or a school bus, a school gym, a cockpit, the Legion….
The piece, like its Newfoundland characters, has a sturdy sense of self, and a kind of distinctive, self-deprecating homespun sense of humour that undercuts sentimentalism. On the fateful day that 7,000 people from everywhere in the world suddenly arrived, the daily rituals of small-town Gander life are in place. “Everything starts and ends at Tim Hortons,” explains the mayor, wonderfully played by Kevin Corolan.
True, there are hints of a darkening post 9-11 world in the suspicious treatment, both from the townsfolk and the passengers, of a Muslim chef. But I still find that there are scenes that over-gild Canadian worthiness. A couple on the rocks, both named Kevin (Nick Duckart and Brandon Springman), are a bit leery about revealing their relationship in a small town in a foreign country. When it happens, inadvertently, it turns out that everyone in the bar has relatives who are gay. So, no problem! What a progressive place small-town Newfoundland is.
But mainly, the characters are idiosyncratic individuals with little stories of their own. Stand-outs include Julie Johnson as Beulah the teacher with the primary school organizational skills; she bonds with the New Yorker (Danielle K. Thomas) who’s also the mother of a firefighter. James Earl Jones II is very amusing as the wary New Yorker sent on a mission to acquire barbecues from backyards, incredulous that people help him ‘steal’ their own grills.
Kristen Peace as the unstoppable SPCA worker who rescues a rare chimpanzee from the hold of a plane, and Julia Knitel as a rookie local reporter who lands the biggest story in the world on her first day, are both excellent. And as American Airlines’ first-ever female pilot, Marika Aubrey nails the show’s big solo Me And The Sky, in which she discovers by the end that her love affair with flight has changed forever on 9-11. But it’s an ensemble show, and the actors are agile and convincing.
It’s a terrific touring production that doesn’t feel road-weary after four years of travelling. And it ends in a party at the Legion. Did I tell you about the expert eight-piece band? It assembles a global assortment of instruments — including accordion, harmonium, whistles, Irish flute, Uileann pipes, fiddle, guitars, mandolins, bouzouki, bodhran and other drums — that lean into the Celtic folk-rock flavour of the score.
So, in this late-pandemic moment, a world catastrophe later than 9-11, when the idea of inviting a stranger home for dinner and a shower is wildly fantastical, what happens to Come From Away? Real-life lumberjack shirts and ballcaps notwithstanding, it takes on the dimensions of a fairytale. When the sulkier of the two Kevins says that being in Newfoundland is like going back in time, he’s so right, back to the once upon a time.
A packed house leapt to their feet on Tuesday’s opening night, ready to kidnap the band and party on. As I left, a lady behind me said to her companion, of the ritual Newfoundland initiation, “I’d kiss the cod. Would you kiss the cod? I would!”
Come From Away
Broadway Across Canada touring production
Created by: Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by: Christopher Ashley
Where: Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through Sunday