Offering the pure joy of musical theatre at its unadulterated best, Come from Away is a breathless celebration of the finest qualities of humanity.
On September 11 2001, the Canadian town of Gander saw an influx of some 38 commercial flights diverted from US airspace. In a week where the world saw carnage that resulted from the worst aspects of civilization, the frightened, disoriented “plane people” were welcomed into Gander and surrounding towns with free-flowing generosity and abundant kindness. The quirky local residents of the isolated town refer to visitors as those who have “come from away,” but soon embrace the newcomers as members of their own families.
After interviewing residents and returning passengers on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, Irene Sankoff and David Hein crafted a deftly integrated book musical that weaves myriad stories and incidents with compelling authenticity. Where musical theatre is usually peppered with one-liners, Come from Away is imbued with character-based humour; there are plenty of laughs, but they all come from naturally comical incidents and reactions.
Presented without interval, Come from Away quickly seizes the audience by the heart, the 100-minute running time fairly racing by. There is not a wasted word in Sankoff and Hein’s book, which sprinkles seemingly incidental seeds that later come to fruition.
A key aspect of the success of Come from Away is the razor-sharp direction of Christopher Ashley. A heady mix of excitement and tension is cultivated in the opening minutes, and this focus never flags. The breakneck pace is accentuated by having scenes and songs flow seamlessly onwards without any breaks for applause. Pent-up audience appreciation is then unleashed in a unanimous and instant standing ovation at the show’s conclusion.
The Australian production has been impeccably cast, with a clear emphasis on talent and suitability rather than on well-known names. Under Ashley’s direction, the twelve members of the true ensemble cast perform minor miracles in terms of playing multiple characters with crystalline clarity. Through the actors’ empathetic performances, there is a strong sense of coming to know the characters, enhancing the impact of their joys and sorrows.
While the show is largely a series of connected incidents, two particular sequences stand out. With around 7000 passengers seeking refuge, the full gamut of world religions is represented. In a beautifully judged scene, people gather to pray in their own manner, with various prayers woven into the time-honoured Christian hymn “Make Me a Channel of your Peace.” Later, tensions are assuaged with a lively community gathering at a local tavern, where visitors are initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders.
The story arc about gay couple Kevin and Kevin is a salient reminder that it is was not all that long ago that people were much more cautious, even fearful, about revealing their sexuality. More disturbing is the reminder of how incredibly quickly the fear of Muslim travelers took hold. In the musical’s most disturbing scene, Muslim chef Ali describes the utter humiliation of undergoing a strip search before he is permitted to board his plane home. The power of this striking moment is a credit to the combined strength of writing, direction and performance, also serving to illustrate the integrity of this mostly feel-good show to consider more challenging angles.
The cohesive production sits deceptively simply on the stage, with Beowulf Boritt’s handsome scenic design adding plenty of rustic atmosphere. Multiple locations, including planes and buses, are created with just a couple of signs, a handful of chairs and a revolving stage. With little variety in scenery, Howell Binkley’s lighting design adds colourful visual appeal. Lighting is also crucial in regard to following the fast-paced action, with a mind-boggling number of lighting cues highlighting individual lines of dialogue and song.
Toni-Leslie James keeps costume design naturally realistic, with the simplest of alterations to allow actors to distinguish their various characters.
Choreographer Kelly Devine contributes “musical staging,” supporting Ashley by creating a small amount of dance, which arises organically from the characters’ actions.
Choice musical director Luke Hunter leads eight fellow musicians on stage in a dynamic performance of the music, which appears to be as much fun to play as it is to hear.
Selecting highlights from the evenly matched ensemble cast is not easy. One clear standout is Zoe Gertz in the key role of pilot Beverley Bass, a driven, resilient woman who is one of the few to elaborate their backstory. Gertz has a magnetic stage presence, and takes Beverley further into our hearts as she recounts the path she traveled to become a successful, respected female pilot in “Me and the Sky.”
American actor Kolby Kindle scores laughs of delight as the fears of uptight New Yorker Bob gradually melt away due to the unabashed kindness and generosity he encounters in Gander. Kelli Rode melts hearts as SPCA chief Bonnie defies orders to rescue a veritable menagerie of animals trapped in the cargo holds of the planes. Sarah Morrison anchors much of the early exposition with flair as rookie reporter Janice, successfully taking the young woman on a rapid journey of self-discovery.
Stage veteran Richard Piper is all blustery charm as Gander’s breezy mayor Claude (and other amusingly interchangeable mayors). Emma Powell warms the stage with the earthy compassion of local primary school teacher Beulah. As terrified mother Hannah, Sharriese Hamilton cultivates a lovely chemistry of friendship with Powell.
Melbourne is fortunate indeed to host the Australian premiere of this glorious musical. Take a partner or friend to bask in the rosy glow of Come from Away.
Come from Away plays at Comedy Theatre Melbourne.
Photos: Jeff Busby