Review By Lisa Lanzi
“You’re writing a show about giving people sandwiches? Good luck with that!”. So said the CEO of Gander International Airport to husband and wife writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff when they arrived in Newfoundland to conduct research and interview locals and ‘come from aways’ about the endearing stories of compassion that unfolded in September 2001 when all flights were ordered to land at the nearest airport and the skies emptied for days.
In 2011 the two creatives heard from friend Michael Rubinoff (Canadian Musical Theatre Project founder and Associate Dean at Toronto’s Sheridan College) about the 10 year reunion in Gander. Many of the “Plane People” stranded there after the September 11th terrorist attacks were returning to commemorate the unstinting kindness of strangers. Funded by a $12,000 grant from the Canada Council, the month-long trip led to hundreds of hours of transcriptions, and deep personal connections, that evolved into a musical like no other
Sankoff and Hein have spoken of the genesis of Come From Away where stories of 6,579 passengers, 38 planeloads of people, were amalgamated and distilled into 100 minutes of compelling musical theatre. It is an amazing tale of creativity resulting in a show that I have not stopped thinking about; if I was to ‘score’ this production it would be an 11 out 10. After much refining and a fruitful collaboration with director Christopher Ashley Come From Away opened in 2015 at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, followed by seasons for Seattle Repertory Theatre and Ford’s Theatre DC, all to great acclaim and sold out runs. The team then took themselves to Gander for a concert version, a time very dear to the original cast and a reflection of the heart and soul poured into this project.
The show takes place in Newfoundland, an island off the far north east coast of Canada however the musical shares stories from Gander and neighbouring towns of Glenwood, Lewisporte, Appleton, Gambo, and Norris Arm. The performers remain on stage for most of the show and take on multiple roles each. With minimal set, twelve chairs and two tables plus sly, seamless handovers of props and clothing, the cast of twelve transforms over and over to portray multiple roles. As an ensemble work, this production is a consummate example. Each performer exudes energy and flawless focus so that every character is wrought fully, and there often seems to be many more than the twelve on stage.
It is difficult to single out any one performer as all are truly excellent and multi-talented. It has to be seen to understand the versatility and ability each brings to the stage. They impeccably shift accents and character, physicality and emotions in seconds. The acting and singing is of the highest quality and they are undeniably in the moment at all times. It is rare to witness such honesty and integrity from an entire cast but I was smitten by Zoe Gertz as Captain Beverley Bass (and other characters), her voice and characterizations are so on point. Joe Kosky, Kat Harrison, Phillip Lowe, and Douglas Hansell also took my breath away with their portrayals. However, every performer exuded a special kind of energy that elevated this musical to musical theatre - there is nothing trite or ‘Disney’ about this production.
Excellent performers as they undoubtedly are, the cast are blessed with the gift of brilliant material from an exceptional team to inspire and challenge them. The tight direction and simple but effective stage movement co-conceived by Christopher Ashley and Kelly Devine allows the story to progress at a fearsome pace. Exacting and coordinated choreography, often making beautiful use of the stage revolve, takes the audience to many locations: bus, plane, café, school hall, and more. It is the simplicity and elegance of impressionistic staging that pushes narrative and emotion to the fore, a minimalist theatre style that always excites me.
Right alongside the excellence of the theatrical elements, music plays a vital role. The onstage musicians are an integral part of the action and again, are beyond talented. The compositions have authentic connections to Newfoundland’s rich folk music heritage based on Irish, English and Cornish traditions that hark from the settlers centuries ago. Instruments used also contribute to the sound in addition to keys and guitars: button accordion, bodhrán, strings, even a traditional Newfoundland ugly stick (a percussion instrument made from household items such as boots, bottle caps, mop handle and more). On so many levels, Come From Away excels at creating place, atmosphere, and sentiment.
I believe the history of deep connection and dedication that shaped the creation of this musical lends much to the actual product that is Come From Away, and all of that is still palpable on stage, years after the first performance. It is theatre marked by integrity and passion and reveals and celebrates the best aspects of humanity. Even if you are not a fan of musicals, the depth of emotion and the sweeping dramatic aspect of the story will win you over; oh, take some tissues and get ready to stand for the ovation that will surely come at the finale.
There are a number of documentaries featuring the town of Gander and the population’s dedication to ensuring the comfort and safety of the grounded refugees from across the globe in 2001, all worth a look. In one of these we are shown a large, preserved piece of paper that has scrawled messages of thanks all over it. One of these reads: “If we could only GANDER-IZE the whole world, what a lovely little planet we would have.”
Makes sense to me. Humanity needs more of what Come From Away embodies and celebrates. I’ll be seeing this production again before it leaves Adelaide.