It’s often in times of tragedy or crisis that the most heartwarming of stories emerge. In this country we might call it the ‘blitz spirit’, but on the other side of the Atlantic it was on September 11th, 2001 that North America had to come together in the face of adversity. Those terrorist attacks do not naturally lend themselves to a musical, but Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come From Away cleverly bases its story, not in New York or Washington, but in a small town on a Canadian island.
When United States airspace was completely closed following the attacks on the Twin Towers, hundreds of planes still in the sky had to be diverted away from the US in an exercise known as Operation Yellow Ribbon. Almost forty of them, carrying some 7000 passengers, landed at an airport in Gander, Newfoundland. All of those planes, and the passengers on board, were considered a potential threat. It took 28 hours for the threat to be cleared, and when those passengers disembarked, largely unaware of what had happened, they instantly doubled the population of Gander and the surrounding towns.
This is the true story of those passengers, and the locals who opened their doors, and hearts, to these ‘Plane People’ or ‘Come From Aways’. The writers based the musical on interviews with those involved, and all of the characters have real life counterparts. What is particularly intriguing is the level of detail which is woven in to the storyline, little snippets which could only ever have come from people who were there, and stories of human struggles which could never be imagined.
The narrative comes in the form of a tantalising blend of spoken and sung-through, all set to an exhilarating Celtic folk score that feels as warm and inviting as the Gander townsfolk. The cast of twelve, chop and change between different characters, sometimes multiple times in the same scene, Clive Carter not only portrays the Mayor of Gander, but the Mayor of every surrounding town too. It’s all very slick and tightly choreographed under Christopher Ashley’s direction, but at the same time there’s a feeling of improvisation, in the same way the people of Gander had to improvise to make sure they could accommodate their new guests.
Beowulf Boritt’s set is comprised of tall trees and wooden furniture, which lends itself to many configurations. A Boeing jet, a school gymnasium, and a Tim Hortons all come together to house these interconnecting stories. Every facet of this production comes with an emotional hook, relationships develop and crumble, and the magnitude of humanity is explored. But it also intelligently recognises the whole experience may not have been as welcoming for everyone, or quite as cosy as some might remember.
This is the very definition of an ensemble piece, there are only a few moments when the whole cast aren’t on stage, with each one of them bringing something special and unique to the fore. Rachel Tucker, whilst in the role of Beverley sings ‘Me and the Sky’; a particularly poignant number about becoming the first female Captain at American Airlines, only to see her beloved planes turned in to weapons. Emma Salvo is excellent as the first day news reporter, while Jenna Boyd’s Beulah is the perfect mix of strong and caring.
Robert Hands and Helen Hobson beautifully portray a couple who fall in love in the midst of tragedy, while David Shannon and Jonathan Andrew Hume skilfully present a gay couple uneasy out of familiar, and accepting Los Angeles. Cat Simmons gives a wonderfully strong performance as Hannah, a mother unable to reach her fire fighter son in Manhattan, the hurt is vividly exposed in ‘I Am Here’, one of the few ballads in this musical.
Although it’s deeply emotional, there are many moments of comedy, usually linked to the inexplicable acts of kindness displayed, like the woman in Walmart who was invited home by the cashier for a shower, or the young man (Nathanael Campbell) asked to go and collect all the grills from backyards, half expecting to be shot for his troubles. Mary Doherty and Harry Morrison also bring us many enjoyable moments, and as they would say in Newfoundland ‘I handy ’bout died’. The score too, is surprisingly upbeat, the opening number ‘Welcome to the Rock’ sets the tone, while ‘Screech’ highlights the way everyone came together to celebrate life.
Come From Away is truly a celebration of what we can all achieve when we put our minds to it. In a world where headlines are filled with wall-building and severing ties with our closest neighbours, this incredible musical reminds us what it is to be human. A heart-swelling burst of joy, this Canadian gift is the musical that reminds us, even in the darkest of times, why life is worth living, and is unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house.