By Patrick O’Brien
It’s no spoiler at this point to note that Come From Away concerns itself with the immediate fallout of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the last time in living memory (prior to the pandemic, of course) that the world came to a standstill. (This is its second touring stop in Chicago; our review of its first can be found here.) Perhaps the sheer “They made a musical about what?!” factor got people in the door, but it took something else to get them to stay in their seats, wholly attentive, never mind what it took to create an international stage success. Maury Yeston, composer/lyricist of Titanic, another “what?!” show if any existed, has often remarked that the things that seem like the worst ideas for musicals often make for great ones. One just has to do a little digging, of course.
Or take a bird’s-eye view, which is what writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein opted for, aided in no small part by Christopher Ashley‘s guiding directorial hand.
Come From Away is their electrifying hundred-minute fly-by over Gander, Newfoundland, a tiny town with an improbably large airport that suddenly came in handy when US airspace was closed and thirty-eight planes had to land.
It’s non-stop, which seems odd for a musical about the layover to end all layovers, about being grounded, stuck, displaced, confused, frightened. Odd, too, for a musical that is nearly nothing but exposition. But what keeps it moving forward–and what keeps ’em in their seats–is the seemingly boundless momentum and charity that came out of the citizens of Gander. They’re not bland paragons of Canadian virtue, but a hearty bunch shaped by their often harsh oceanfront environment. Their ethos:
“Are we gonna be ready?”
Pulled from extensive interviews, it’s a gift for a dozen singing character actors, each one flipping through a handful of roles, Newfie and “plane people” alike. A gift to watch them, too. And even between all the back-and-forths, distinct and indelible characters emerge. Marika Aubrey‘s Captain Beverly Bass, a patriarchy-busting stoic until stoicism fails her; Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson; an Englishman and a Texan who improbably find romance in dire straits; and Chicago favorite James Earl Jones II as a lifer New Yorker who is moved more than most by Canada’s open arms.
Where it should be respectful, it touches as lightly and poignantly as needed. When it needs levity, it’s hilarious. And it’s always moving, always driving. (Propulsive music direction by Myrna Conn on press night.)
Like a plane, the big question for any musical is, does it fly or not? Come From Away is a non-stop must-see.
Come From Away plays through March 6th at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. For tickets or more information, please call (800) 775-2000 or visit broadwayinchicago.com.
Photos by Matthew Murphy.