For months now I’ve been urging everyone I meet who has even the slightest affection for the theater to make sure they see Come From Away when it plays in Houston.
“I absolutely adore every second of this show, you will too,” I promise. “Great,” they ask. “What’s it about?”
Things get a bit complicated from there.
Explaining it's musical about 9/11, I can feel their suspicion bubble up. After all, a story about the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil isn’t most folks’ idea of a fun night at the theater, let alone the natural subject matter for a musical.
But of course, the Tony-nominated Come From Away (Book, Music, and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) isn’t a musical about the tragedy in New York City that awful day. It’s about the planes, from all over the world, 38 in total, that were ordered out of the sky by emergency decree and forced to land in Gander, a small Newfoundland town on the very east coast of Canada.
More importantly, it's about the people on those planes. Nearly 7,000 in total. Their addition raising Gander's population to almost twice its normal size. And how they, these “come from aways” were welcomed, taken in and taken care of in their time of need by the local residents. It’s about how these Canadians offered unlimited kindness to utter strangers in the aftermath of terror, and how those who received that kindness were forever changed.
If any of the people I spoke with were in attendance at last eve’s performance (presented by Memorial Hermann Broadway at the Hobby Center), I'd bet my Canadian passport that they too now are converts to the adulation of this inspirational, moving and entertaining as hell, musical. A musical based on the true stories Sankoff and Hein learned after interviewing locals and passengers.
So, breathe a sigh of relief Come From Away fans and newbies excited to see it for the first time, the touring production does justice to the show. And then give thanks to the Hobby Center sonance spirits, this time the sound is miraculously not over mixed, muffled or so cranked to 11 that we can’t discern the lyrics.
Sure, the Newfoundland accent, with it’s more than a hint of Irish lilt, may take a minute to grasp, but at least we can hear every word.
Set on a bare stage flanked by tall tree trunks, it's up to the actors, with the assistance of dozens of wooden chairs choreographed to cleverly stand in everything from airplane seats to coffee shop booths, to set the musical’s scenes.
There’s the Newfoundlanders, who we meet the morning of 9/11 just before the planes hit the towers. And what an introduction it is. Welcome to the Rock may be one of the best modern musical opening numbers you'll see. Backed by the foot-stomping Celtic fiddle and percussion sounds of traditional Newfoundland music (an eight-person on-stage band), we learn of the uniqueness of the remote place. The terrible weather. The pride in their islander roots. The funny way they speak. Their sense of humor and good nature.
The come from aways come from all over, but mostly it’s Americans we meet in the musical. In a time before the wide use of cellphones or a way to charge them on planes, they're unaware of what's happened, unsure of why they landed or even where they are. They're exhausted and stir crazy having been kept on the planes, some for 28 hours, while the FAA figured out if they'd be allowed to disembark.
Eleven actors take on all the roles, flipping back and forth between Newfoundlanders and come from aways as required. While there's no starring role, each character gets a narrative of their own, some of the storylines play larger than others.
There's Beverly (Marika Aubrey), the first-ever American Airlines female captain, who's girl power, belt it to the heavens number, Me and the Sky, gets roaring cheers from the audience. Claude (Kevin Carolan) the mayor of Gander, responsible for figuring out how his tiny town is supposed to accommodate these thousands of scared, cranky, anxious passengers. A mayor not immune to dropping the odd f-bomb where appropriate.
We get a love story when Englishman Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) meets Texan Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) while stranded. If their meet-cute under horrible circumstances wasn't heart-warming enough in the musical, we in Houston get the special treat of having the real-life Nick and Diane living right here in Spring.
Of course, in a story like this, sadness and tension can’t be ignored. New Yorker Hannah (Amelia Cormack) is desperately trying to locate her firefighter son while Egyptian passenger, Ali (Nick Duckart) fends off Islamophobia exhibited by some of the passengers.
But while Come From Away doesn’t shy away from the difficult moments, it doesn’t dwell in them either. This isn’t a story of sorrow, but rather of hope. So, we’re given many reasons to laugh, often to do with the Americans’ incredulity at how desperate to help and hospitable the islanders are.
Then there's the rather unique, rowdy and booze-infused way Newfoundlanders make you an honorary local. Fish haters beware.
All this carries on with a pace that never lets up. From standard musical arrangements to the Celtic romps that comprise the 15 numbers (many of which you'll be humming in your head for days to come), Come From Away moves forward for an hour and 40 minutes with no break in the action, not even for applause.
Numbers and narrative merge into each other, moving the story forward towards when the "plane people" can finally go home. It's emotional, it's exhilarating and it's part of what makes the energy of the musical so electric.
But ultimately, it’s Come From Away’s message, its heart, that wins us over.
When Sankoff and Hein started their research for the musical in 2011, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the Gander landing, they couldn't have known the political turn things would take, not just in the United States, but all over the world. How divisiveness and suspicion of others would take stranglehold.
But it's in this atmosphere that Come From Away, a story about opening arms to strangers in need, was eventually launched in 2015 and went onto Broadway in 2017. And boy were we desperately hungry for that message.
And unfortunately, we still are.
From the sniffles that sounded more like soft sobs around me (including my own) audiences cry harder at the expressions of kindness in the show than the truly sad parts. And doesn’t that speak volumes about where we are now and what this show reminds us of?
Don’t get me wrong, when good times are upon us again (fingers crossed), Come From Away will still be one of the most affecting musicals you could hope for. But meanwhile, it will continue to resonate as a near-perfect piece of theater and a reminder of what we're all capable of if we step up and become honorary Newfoundlanders ourselves.
Come From Away continues through March 8 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$264.