By Ian Rigg
“On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, there’s an airport. And next to it, there’s a town called Gander.”
The must-see musical Come From Away illuminates and examines the story you know, through a true story you don’t. And it makes for simply must-see musical theatre.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, planes were left scrambled in the air, unable to land at their intended destination, each considered a potential bomb threat. 38 of them were directed to land in a once popular hub for connecting flights, a remote and obsolete airport in Newfoundland. 7,000 people didn’t get their intended flight that day. But they sure made their connection.
With thousands of passengers in need of somewhere to stay while the chaos is forced into order, the lovable town of Gander leaps into action (as they insist anyone would have done). As the valiant townspeople selflessly make haste to prepare for 38 planes full of unexpected guests, travelers from all over the world remain trapped on a plane for 28 hours, scared and completely unaware of what happened. During the days to come, hours of missed sleep and the challenge of disparate cultures leave exasperated and uneasy nerves. But when the doors open, hands reach out, friendships form, romance blossoms, reeling people relearn to trust, gratitude and mercy prevail over fear and wrath, and neither the characters nor the audience leave the same.
Come From Away rounds out every facet of the human condition under the crucible of crisis. The masterful book, music and lyrics by tony nominees Irene Sankoff & David Hein is both a testament to the everyday goodness of people and a multilayered depiction of the many facets and forces at play during this tumultuous week of history. It would have been so easy to make this show a sheer feel good fest, but it’s so much truer and more transcendent than that.
The play boldly doesn’t shy away from depicting the kind of rash prejudice that lashes out against the innocent in the wake of war, embodied in the treatment of Ali (played with great conviction by Nick Duckart), an Egyptian Muslim master chef initially turned away from the kitchen, treated with derision and suspicion by fellow passengers, and immorally strip-searched. But when the show holds up the mirror to make audiences see the ugliness in humanity, they are primarily overwhelmed with the brightest aspects of its beauty. When the chips are down, humanity shows its true face—in Come From Away, it’s an altruistic hand outstretched. In the final analysis, people come together, not tear one another apart. The measure of humanity is not people who fly planes into buildings. It’s the people who welcome others into their homes, asking for nothing in return.
Director Christopher Ashley and musical stager Kelly Devine prove that all you need to make great theatre are a few chairs, lights, and a whole flight full of heart. Ashley keeps the vision on course with its everlasting themes of human connection, and Devine lives up to her surname by arranging stirring stage pictures and environments from plane fuselages to bars to mountaintops with evocative movements and a perfectly utilized turntable.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt sets everyone up for success with his rustic wood, seemingly simplistic set, that is revealed to have an incredible amount of surprising and stunning tricks up its sleeve. Howell Binkley’s lighting design makes the stage pictures transcendent, suggesting stars, storms, scenes from a cockpit and more with brilliantly evocative illumination. One of the show’s most compelling points comes early on, with a series of phone calls, radio waves and transmissions, and sound designer Gareth Owen applies cool and effective vocal effects. Ian Eisendrath manages airtight harmonies and vocal presence that reaches down into audience’s souls.
Given all of these gifts to play with, it’s the incredible actors who bring Come From Away to life. The absolutely dynamite cast effortlessly shifts between roles, each embodying no fewer than two characters each, from town mayor to ASPCA advocate saving the animals in the cargo hold to Muslim chef to small-town reporter on her first day to English man and Texan woman falling for one another to bus driver to mother of a firefighter to man-crazed aide to airline captain.
Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Christine Toy Johnson, Julie Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megn McGinnis, Danielle K. Thomas, Andrew Samonsky, and Emily Walton are an award-worthy ensemble who tell these stories with tenderness and truth (Look out particularly for the vocal talents of Gulsvig, who soars in the show’s best solo piece, “Me and the Sky,” about Beverley Bass, the first female American Airline captain who led her ship commendably during the crisis). Each turns in a truly beautiful dual performance, that packs a double artistic punch: because aren’t we so much more similar to one another than different?
Come From Away is a timeless time capsule of four days of horror, humor, and humanity, an elegy of what was lost and a celebration of what was found. With a stirring score, singular stagecraft, and soaring spirit, it’s the kind of show an audience will never forget.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Come From Away” through August 18 at Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. For tickets and more information click here.