|Tony-nominee Jenn Colella (left) and the cast of Come From Away.|
There are essentially two routes Broadway shows can go these days to justify their ever-growing price tags: elaborate spectacle that puts the money onstage, or theatrical craft so elevated its clearly the result of years of skill sharpening. Come From Away, the deeply moving and gloriously uplifting new musical now playing Broadway, thankfully opts for the latter, arriving in New York as a highly polished gem of a musical with the added bonus of not being based on any preexisting source material.
Written by Broadway newcomers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away is inspired by the amazing true story of Gander, Newfoundland, which saw 38 planes and their accompanying 7000 passengers diverted to the small Canadian town when US airspace closed after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. And while this ensemble driven show doesn't shy away from the horrific aftereffects of that fateful day, it is also overflowing with inspiring stories of human kindness and mankind's capacity for love. The residents of Gander welcomed 7000 strangers into their homes without a moment's hesitation, feeding and clothing their multicultural visitors for 5 days until the planes were cleared to fly again. Yes, you will probably shed a few tears of sadness, but you will shed just as many at the sheer beauty of the simple human kindness on display.
What Sankoff and Hein manage to do so successfully is juxtapose moments of darkness with ones of hope. A particularly moving passage halfway through the intermissionless show illustrates how the many different faiths of the travelers allow them to cope with their grief, just after a Muslim traveler has been harassed during his midday prayers. The scenes seamlessly transition from spoken dialogue to the folk-influenced score and back again, balancing the specificity of the individual characters' journeys with the narrative's overarching themes. Sankoff and Hein have spent years honing the show prior to its New York debut, resulting in a work with nary a word out of place and a single story beat that feels forced or rushed. This is a musical that earns the emotions it elicits rather than manipulating them out of you.
The town of Gander is brought to life by an amazing ensemble of twelve actors, each playing multiple characters with little to distinguish them except changes in accent and some relatively minor costume pieces. So great is the entire cast's skill that not once during the show do you wonder who is playing who, even when they adopt a new persona onstage in front of your eyes. (Dialect coach Joel Goldes deserves special mention for guiding the cast to spot on Newfoundlander and multinational accents.)
While the entire cast is outstanding, Jenn Colella is particularly memorable as Beverley, the first female American Airlines captain and our window into the airlines' perspective on the entire ordeal (her rendition of "Me and the Sky" is a genuinely inspiring girl power anthem and one of the production's highlights). Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall are adorable as a Texas divorcee and English businessman who find love amidst their awful circumstances, and Q. Smith is quietly heartbreaking as a mother waiting to hear from her first responder son. Although they are sometimes only given a line or two of dialogue to establish a character, each actor makes sure you know and care about everyone in the tale, to the point where you are genuinely curious about their fates after the final curtain.
Director Christopher Ashley is the assured captain of this streamlined ship, deftly guiding cast and audience through the show's many emotional highs and lows. With little more than some tables and chairs, Ashley takes us from a plane's cramped interior to a small town recreational center to the crowded confines of the airport's customs office. His directorial approach to the show is minimalist but far from simplistic, as the staging never fails to hold visual and emotional interest (greatly aided by Howell Binkley's outstanding lighting design). There is a kinetic energy that flows throughout the piece even when the characters are standing still, which makes the evening fly by.
Come From Away is a perfect example of the healing power of theatre, a cathartic and uplifting show centered around one of the darkest days in modern US history. Polished to a high sheen by a team of theatrical artisans working at the top of their game, this is must see theatre at its most pure. Do not let the 9/11 ties scare you away; you will cry, yes, but you will also laugh, cheer, and find yourself moved by humanity's ability to lift one another up when we truly need it. Given the dark and sometimes defeated political climate we find ourselves, Come From Away is just the sort of inspiring show Broadway needs right now.