Come From Away Offers Us the Best in All of Us

Come From Away: a heartfelt ode to people in tough circumstances, demonstrating their best selves.
Come From Away: a heartfelt ode to people in tough circumstances, demonstrating their best selves. Photo by Matthew Murphy

If there is a more heartfelt and soulful contemporary musical out there than Come From Away, now restarted on its national tour after being halted by the pandemic, I'd truly like to know about it. I don't think it exists.

What a grand show this is. It covers you, embraces you, in the most comfortable blanket imaginable, warm and cozy, like something you'd find in any home in Newfoundland, where this musical takes place. The comforter covers the characters as much as the audience in its deeply-felt warmth and security, even though half of its characters are unsure where they are, what has happened, or how long they will be stranded on this unknown island in the Atlantic Ocean.

In the horrendous moments immediately after 9/11, all incoming flights were canceled over U.S. airspace. Thirty-eight planes were ordered to land in Gander, Newfoundland, once a mighty refueling stop in the era of prop transatlantic planes. Now, in mere minutes, the small town swelled in population to double its size. How will the inhabitants cope with so many hungry dazed passengers from all over the world who most definitely don't want to be here? Food, clothing, housing for all these “come from away-ers” encompasses this musical's large heart, as does the islanders' unselfish graciousness to these strangers in their midst. The unexpected collision changes them all.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, married Canadian authors/musicians Irene Sankoff and David Hein interviewed the Gander inhabitants and the people from the planes and then forged all these recollections into the beautifully crafted musical now before us. It is seamless and flows inextricably for an intermissionless hour and a half. Songs and dialogue meld in stunning musical scenes without breaks, not stopping for applause, except when the emotion of the audience gets too much and we must clap our appreciation. The words are crisp and briny, everyday patois of the iconoclastic Newfoundlanders, yet the easy language is like the best of Shakespeare, pungent and sharp, solid and safe as the “Rock” on which they live.

The direction from Christopher Ashley, in on the project from the beginning as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse where this show originated, is some of the most liquid direction I have seen on stage in years. It is flawless in its continuous movement, the precise sculptural moves when everyone acts as chorus, its instantaneous brief scenes set apart from the rest, all at the service of its beating human heart.

And the music. What glories exalt in its Celtic rock-inspired Broadway heart. The octet of spirited musicians, on harmonium, accordion, bousouki, acoustic bass, bodhran, and fiddle, on stage with the actors, dance with abandon. All is lively and perfectly lovely. You'll want to clog along with them. The songs in themselves aren't memorable, you won't hear them covered anytime soon, but as a cohesive score they work like gangbusters in mood and style. The propulsive numbers move this show in ways parallel to Ashley's magic. It's satisfying on an elemental level – it's just right, exactly what this show should sound like.

Twelve actors play all the characters, islanders and the strangers on the planes. Except for Jeremy Woodard, as gay Kevin T. and Newfoundlander Garth, union leader of the local school bus strike, and the understudy Jane Bunting as Janice, all these are familiar faces from the national tour seen in Houston in 2020, presented by Broadway at the Hobby. They have honed their roles razor-sharp and mesh together with laser focus.

Who could forget Julie Johnson as feisty Beulah, local librarian and mother of a Newfoundland firefighter, who adds a comforting shoulder to Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah, who can not find any information about her NY fireman son whose unit rushed into the burning towers. We love prickly Kevin Carolan as mayor of Gander with his flinty delivery; Marika Aubrey as Beverly, American Airlines first woman captain, and her rousing anthem “Me and the Sky;” Sharone Sayegh as kind-hearted animal-loving Bonnie, who rescues a bonobo ape with numerous cats and dogs from the cargo hold; or Nick Duckart as Egyptian Ali who everybody suspects is a terrorist but is a master chef who improves the overworked soup kitchen; or Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson as stuffy Englishman Nick and expressive Texan Diane who find romance among the faraway effects of devastation; Harter Clingman as leprechaun-like Oz; and James Earl Jones II as smarmy dream-figure pilot who comes on to Beverly with comic seductive sleaze using the basso-profundo voice of his third cousin.

Within Beowulf Boritt's exterior setting of blasted tree trunks and a translucent back panel of stone; under Howell Binkley's immaculate lighting; and wearing Toni-Leslie James' utilitarian costumes, the characters are very much like us, stunned by the evils in this world, yet overcoming them with unconditional kindness. We pray that we may “pay it forward” with as much heart as these sweet, very human people from Gander, Newfoundland. Under the worst of conditions, people often do the very best. Come From Away is testament to that. This is one of the finest musicals in memory. Go be uplifted.

Come From Away continues through April 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Theatre Under the Stars at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $40- $136.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover