The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? Almost everyone has a memory of where they were when they heard the news about the terrorist attacks that forever changed the world. What you might not know, however, is that 7,000 people found themselves somewhere very unexpected on that day: Gander, Newfoundland, the re-routing place of 38 planes. These unlikely visitors, their stories, and how the town handled the “plane people” serve as the subjects for Come From Away, a surprisingly delightful musical created by Irene Sankoff and David Hein and based on true events.
The musical, onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center, opens with “Welcome to the Rock,” an energy-fueled number that reveals much about the kind, compassionate people of Gander. The song also hearkens to the way that not just these people, but people everywhere, can instantly recall what they were doing, what mundane activity they were in the middle of, when they learned of the tragedy. It’s a startling reminder of how time stopped, and yet, at the same time, life continued.
In fact, “life” is a perfect word to apply to this performance. It’s rich with human stories, with characters that leap off the stage, and with raw, real emotion. It’s also ripe with realism to the point of being somewhat stark . . . but in a wonderful way. The musical spares the big, over-the-top effects so commonly found in today’s shows in favor of a strong story and narrative, crystal clear lyrics and music that divulge meticulous details.
None of that is to say that the musical is overly somber. Instead, there’s more humor and heart than one would expect. It’s not happy, exactly, but it’s certainly hopeful, much like the real-life story that inspired it. Connections are forged, unbreakable bonds are built, and the most unlikely people bond in the most unlikely ways. Another unique aspect is how surprisingly intimate the production is. Viewers don’t feel like they’re watching a musical in a huge venue. Instead, Come From Away manages to feel more like a standard stage play, largely because of the smart choice to have a relatively small cast play out countless roles. Quick character changes require close viewing and add to the immersion. And, yet, so many characters manage to shine.
On opening night, Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) and Beulah’s (Julie Johnson) stories were particularly effective. Though the two women look nothing alike and live in entirely different places, they connect over their firefighter sons and find strength and courage in one another. Thomas, in particular, does an excellent job of showcasing her character’s grief and fear as she worries over her son’s unknown fate. Similarly, James Earl Jones II makes the perfect Bob. He is funny, deep-voiced, and oh-so-skeptical about the unexpected kindness he’s receiving as a visitor in a strange place. Yet, as the show goes on, he falls in love with Gander and the people there, and his enamorment makes him all the more endearing. Of course, his “love” story isn’t the only one worth watching. Bonnie, sweetly portrayed by Kristen Peace, falls in love with some stranded animals, and Nick, played by a wonderfully charming James Kall, develops feelings for fellow passenger, Diane, acted by an equally adorable Christine Toy Johnson. At the same time, audience members fall in love with and feel great sympathy for Ali Momen’s “Ali,” a character that experiences unfair indignities just for being himself. Momen is tender in all the right places and beautifully, but painfully, brings to life some oft-overlooked and devastating effects of the 9/11 story.
Over the course of five days, relationships are formed, changed, challenged, and strengthened, and they’re all set to gorgeous, haunting songs. And, while it’s hard to pick a favorite, Beverely’s (Marika Aubrey) “Me and the Sky” is unforgettable. Aubrey’s rich, trust-inspiring voice perfectly relates Beverley’s passion for flying, the hurdles she overcame to do what she loved, and her horror and disappointment at having an icon turned into a weapon.
The show’s talented musicians carry and make possible every single tune and every single tale. They also act as catalysts for the show’s shifting tones and moods. Indeed, Come From Away has the ability to take viewers from laughing at cardiologists-turned-bathroom-cleaners to crying over lost lives and loves in the span of seconds. Also nice here is the wonderfully diverse cast. A variety of races, ages, body types, religions, and orientations are brought together onstage . . . just as they were in real life, and the result is nothing short of beautiful.
Come From Away is a show for every human. That’s because it’s not just a show about September 11th or the events surrounding it. It’s a show about what it means to be a person, to connect, and about how good we can be when we put aside our differences and let love win. Uplifting, inspiring, and unabashedly honest, this production is one that merits as many viewings as you can manage.
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