‘Come From Away’ Finds Joy When the Journey Goes Nowhere
Finding warmth alongside the tragedies of 9/11, Come From Away‘s real-life characters are impossible not to fall for. The musical’s touring production runs through August 7 at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
I need something to do cuz I can’t watch the news anymore!
With most “inspired by” types of productions, it’s fair to assume they’re making a bunch of it up.
Hewing close to reality doesn’t tend to make good musicals, which thrive on fantastical details, easily-captured caricatures, and definitive goals to fuel their forward motion. And a small town rounding up food and toilet paper for some grounded air travelers during a tragedy doesn’t sound like the makings of a hit musical, at least not without some serious embellishment.
But reading through an account of what happened in Canada’s far-northeast province during that terrible week of September 11, 2001, is like a catalog of details from Come From Away: suspending a bus driver strike to shuttle the “plane people” (as they’re called throughout) into town, rescuing a pregnant chimp from a plane, calling off a toilet paper drive due to excess generosity, making off with grills from people’s yards, kissing a fish in a quest to become a real-honorary Newfoundlander.
The most incredible part of Come From Away is that the most memorable, unlikely, and mundane bits that are staged in the musical are true. The second most incredible part is that they make for an excellent show.
Come From Away isn’t just a feel-good memorial to 9/11 and some unlikely saviors in a far-flung area. It’s the epitome of great storytelling, an unexpected work of journalism recast in song.
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On the morning of September 11, 2001, loads of planes were in the sky as aircraft suddenly turned into deadly weapons, one after another after another. Having no idea how far it spread, the United States closed down its airspace, diverting international flights midair. Some 38 of those planes were diverted to the far-flung town of Gander, up near Greenland, a long-ago stopover when planes had to refuel before crossing the Atlantic. The Gander airport’s obsolescence for modern aircraft made it valuable on that day for a dark, unspoken reason: if the planes sent there turned out to carry bombs, they wouldn’t be headed to densely populated areas.
As they descended on a sleepy airport in a quiet town, it was hard enough to find a place to put the planes themselves. What about all the people aboard them, as the grounded hours turned into days, and when the number of unexpected passengers rivaled the area’s total population?
Going nowhere isn’t much of a journey, and it doesn’t normally make for a very good story. But Come From Away‘s story isn’t one of sitting around. It’s a tale of how the townspeople of Gander and nearby towns mobilized to create a home, however temporary, for a whole bunch of worried, hungry people who had, quite unwillingly, “come from away.”
(Read a first-hand account of a Gander-stranded “plane person” here, and a 9/11 survivor on ‘Come From Away’ here.)
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In Come From Away, there are no stars, no leads among the characters representing Gander and its neighboring towns. When a character strikes up a song, which is often, the whole company joins in as a chorus. It’s a fitting delivery for a tale of a town that all leapt to pitch in.
Writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book, music, and lyrics) weave together a tale of people casting aside their everyday to take on the roles of crisis responders: turning a school into a mass shelter, hauling passengers off the tarmac and into town, shopping and cooking up a mass of meals to feed them, offering up landlines for countless long-distance calls, and putting them up on couches and guest rooms in personal homes. And, above all, they’re welcoming in that cold and scary world, as bewildered passengers, and even their pilots, try to muddle through the mundane while processing the extraordinary.
Come From Away‘s touring company is comprised of 12 members: Marika Aubrey, Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Steffi Didomenicantonio, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Christine Toy Johnson, Julie Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Kristen Peace, Danielle K. Thomas, and Jeremy Woodard. There’s not a weak link in the bunch. (At opening, standby Jenny Ashman performed in place of Marika Aubrey and gave an exceptional performance in those roles.) They’re joined occasionally centerstage by members of the lively band, which plays mostly from the wings, with a big range of instruments: Cameron Moncur (music director and conductor, on keyboard, accordion, harmonium), Isaac Alderson (whistles, Irish flute, Uilleann pipes), Kiana June Weber (fiddle), Billy Bivona (electric and acoustic guitars), Martin Howley (acoustic guitar, mandolins, bouzouki), Sean Rubin (electric and acoustic bass), Steve Holloway (bodhran, percussion), and Ben Morrow (drums, percussion).
It’s a rare show that’s truly company-driven, as Come From Away is. As a musical, that type of delivery could too easily get confusing, gimmicky, or overwrought. Under direction of Christopher Ashley, here it works perfectly. The whole chorus propels the show on. The costumes (designed by Toni-Leslie James) are simple and effective signals. Lighting design (by Howell Binkley) and simple staging (scenic design by Beowulf Boritt) allow a cramped plane cabin to morph into a makeshift shelter, a home, a bar, a cargo hold, an airport. Scene changes happen in a snap.
All those production elements combine to keep the stories from Gander flowing effortlessly. There was no checking my watch, no looking for a timing clue in the song list, no getting restless — a rarity even in the best of shows, and certainly in a long single act. (This show runs around 100 minutes, no intermission.)
Meanwhile, the joyful soundtrack, perhaps best described as Celtic party rock, would feel odd in just about any other setting. For this all-hands gathering in Gander, it feels right at home.
Whether you’ve seen Come From Away in its pre-Broadway early days at Seattle Rep (as I did), or another version, or you’re fully new to the show, its current run at The 5th is strongly recommended. Come From Away is a welcome balm in wretched times.
Come From Away runs through 8/7 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $59-$169, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Runtime: 100 minutes, no intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.