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Two Views of "Come From Away"
by Glenda Frank and Lucy Komisar
“Come from Away,” a new musical. Book, Music and Lyrics Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45 St., NYC. $47 – 157. March 12, 2017 – open run. Tues. and Thurs., 7 PM. Wed. Fri. Sat., 8 PM. Wed. and Sat. 2 PM. Sun. 3 PM. For tickets and information: call 212- 239-6200, visit the box office, www.telecharge.com or www.comefromaway.com.
by Glenda Frank
When friends in Rhode Island and Chicago told me about their distress after the Twin Towers fell, I could shrug it off. I had seen the towers collapse from West 27 Street, volunteered near Ground Zero, smelled the burning and watched the dust fall for months afterwards. But the people of Gander, Newfoundland, 1148 miles away from the World Trade Center, knew the disaster in a way that was up-close and personal. Their response, like ours in New York, was to open their hearts and wallets and to work around the clock. “Come from Away,” a new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is based on the true story of the almost 7,000 stranded passengers from 38 flights who were not permitted to cross into the United States on Sept. 11 and landed in the small town of Gander, population 9,000.
“Come from Away” is a heart-warming story, yes, decidedly, and the music is lively, the performers excellent, the stage movement precise and alive – but even better, “Come from Away” tells many stories with clarity and poignancy. All works of art with a group protagonist are challenging, and most fail. The audience/reader gets the characters confused, is disinterested in some stories, or simply zones out because the work makes too many demands. “Come from Away” somehow avoids these problems. We are eager for the next voice, for the next surprise, for the next conflict and resolution. That is masterly. This is a musical you should not miss.
For the story: when the planes are forced to land in sleepy Gander, which many years before had been a fuel-hub, the town is confused. How will they manage? How long will the passengers be there? Step by step, they create a master plan. Empty the school, bring in yoga matts, buy diapers. Buy baby food. Buy personal hygiene items. Truck over lots of food and store it -- in the hockey rink.
News about the attack seeps into the town slowly, mostly through television. The passengers, on the other hand, know nothing and are frightened. Some have been in transit more than 24 hours and their planes are in shut-down. When the town arranges school buses – which is not easy because the drivers’ union is in salary renegotiations – the travelers, summoned at night in a town that has few street lights, are now terrified. A few, like an African family, speak little English. Some clever townsperson realizes that the wife’s bible although in a different language has the same structure as his. So he finds the right verse and comforts them through the language of religion. A traveler from Great Britain (Lee MacDougall) finds a quiet seat beside a woman from Texas (Sharon Wheatley) and changes his life. Stories like this punctuate the narrative. The bonds formed between and among the two groups of residents and travelers show humanity at its best.
The set design (Beowulf Boritt) is basically some tables and twelve chairs, one for each actor. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James does double step, not only to enhance the visuals but to individualize the many characters. The actors are adept at shifting accents, body language, mood, tempo. It is an amazing ensemble. They are a group and they step into the spotlight, talking to us, talking intimately to each other in ways we can all identify with – plane talk, partner fights, workers planning an event.
There are some real stand outs. The veterinarian (Petrina Bromley) challenges a federal mandate in order to nurture the caged animals forgotten on the plane. She recruits her husband, skips sleep, and fusses over a cat that need medicine. The charismatic Q. Smith and Astrid van Wieren play two mothers of firefighters, one from Queens, one from Gander, who bond over a missing son. The female pilot, the first for American Airlines (Jenn Colella), proves human and professional and in love with flying. (She earned a mid-scene round of applause.) The mayor of Gander (Joel Hatch with his raspy voice) who does not know what to do but leads brilliantly, guiding the town in generosity and compassion and the audience, through his monologues. Kevin (Chad Kimball), who accidentally comes out to some townspeople and discovers an unexpected welcome. And of course the young, black New Yorker (Rodney Hicks), who obsesses over someone stealing his wallet. When the mayor instructs him to round up all the backyard grills for a giant cook-out, he is not attacked as he feared but invited inside for a cuppa. These touching stories shift the moral compass.
There are fifteen songs, which range from the Celtic cadences of “Welcome to the Rock” to “Blankets and Bedding” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” Some songs feature individuals but most are sung by the company. Kudos to director Chrisopher Ashley (“The Rocky Horror Show”), choreographer Kelly Devine (“Rocky”), and the seven spirited musicians on stage.
“Come From Away.”
Book, music and lyric by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.
Directed by Christopher Ashley.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York City.
Opened March 12, 2017.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 15, 2015.
This play is a charmer. I didn’t expect to say that. I thought a story about the passengers who force-landed in Gander, Newfoundland, because airspace in the U.S. was closed on 9/11 and who were welcomed by the locals, would be hokey and sentimental. It is not.
It is smart and though it uses a light brush, it deals with serious issues such as a Muslim passenger being humiliated in a body search. I went on the evening that Ivanka Trump was there, guest of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and I wondered how she took that. Canada had bought 600 seats for guests that included 125 UN ambassadors, among them American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley seated next to him and Ivanka.
The book, music and lyric by the Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein is in the modern style of folk opera, with the music featuring sounds of country, Celtic and a bit of pop showbiz. Direction by Christopher Ashley is smooth and pleasing. So is the ensemble cast.
The actors play numerous parts, both locals and passengers. At first, the arrivals are edgy, especially after 15 to 25 hours sitting on the tarmac. Even though they get free drinks! The dozen or so actors represent 7,000 people who were on 38 grounded planes.
It is a different kind of disaster show. The real disaster is over a thousand miles away at the World Trade Center. But people’s lives here are also disrupted. We see them on rows of wood chairs on the plane. They are distraught. When they get off, they immediately want phones and internet computers.
The mayor (Joel Hatch) and others get the willing citizens of Gander to greet them – to provide food and clothes and showers and even beds in their homes. That will last for five days. The chairs shift to represent the venues where they are welcomed, community centers, other places where they can sleep. There’s a night out at the pub, with a large lit Molson’s sign. And good Irish singing.
At the sides are high thin tree trunks and at the back a weathered wood wall – this after all is not an urban place. Population 10,000. Set by Beowulf Boritt.
And there’s some serious stuff. The pilot (Jenn Colella) turns out to be a woman of 51 who struggled from 1986 to fulfill a childhood dream to become a pilot and became the first American airline pilot in history. When she tells that, it gets applause.
And some very contemporary dark-comic stuff. They are going to have a huge barbecue and someone tells Bob, the black guy (Rodney Hicks), to go around the backyards and collect grills. What!, he wonders, “Take their grills? Someone’s gonna shoot me.” But he does it and isn’t shot. In fact, he says, “I get offered a cup a tea in every single backyard –and most of them offer to help me steal their own barbecues.”
Two gay men (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) are nervous about revealing themselves, and suddenly everyone is talking about their gay and lesbian friends. When a Jewish man starts praying, another who joins him says he was born in Poland and his parents sent him to Canada before the war and told him never to tell anyone he was Jewish. But now he needed to tell someone.
And then there is the Muslim, Ali (Samayoa), who is talking in Arabic on the phone. A passenger exclaims, “Why doesn’t he speak English?” And another, “You telling your Muslim friends where to bomb next?” He is targeted by a flight attendant and gets stopped both landing and departing and subjected to a full body search which he explains is in his faith degrading. (In whose faith is it not degrading?)
He reveals that he is the chef at an international hotel. And he pitches in to do the cooking. Unlike some of the flight passengers, the Canadians don’t display Islamophobia.
Ivanka to Donald! Ivanka to Donald! (Forget that, don’t assume morals or sensibility.)
There’s also a nice budding romance between a British man (Lee MacDougall) and a Dallas woman (Sharon Wheatley), both in their 40s. First a bit shy and diffident, they find each other in the unusual space. Life in the midst of death. Which takes us to Hannah (Q. Smith), a large middle-aged woman who is worried about her son, a New York City firefighter. She bonds with the expansive Earth Mother type, Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren).
People who might never have met and talked to each other are becoming fast friends. But as one of the gay guys says, “We’re not sure how much to say – you just don’t know where the red states are in a foreign country, right?”
Fortunately for Canada, which has terrific public health care and education systems and doesn’t share America’s hostility to immigrants, it doesn’t seem to have too many red states. Which explains why they have terrific public health, etc. And, so, with its subtle back story, this is a very appealing musical show.
Visit Lucy’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com/
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