By Taylor Kendal
Anyone who is old enough to remember can tell you exactly where they were that day; the day that the world stopped and the rest of us looked on in terror as New York suffered one of the most horrific terrorist tragedies mankind had ever seen. Even now, almost eighteen years later, the wounds are still raw, and the world changed forever. But while the devastation caused played heavy on the minds and hearts of the people, it also paved the way for one of the most incredible acts of kindness and human spirit; all on a rock in the middle of the sea. It is this tale, the story of Gander, Newfoundland – a small township in Canada - that serves as the setting for the latest hit musical to hit the Melbourne stage, Come From Away.
Come From Away is a simple yet beautifully staged one act production created by husband and wife team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein and only the fifth original Canadian musical to make it to Broadway (and now beyond). Covering 5 days, it tells the remarkable true story of September 11, 2001; when on their way to the United States, 38 planes were diverted and forced to land in a remote area of Newfoundland with very little warning. For hours, those on board had no idea what had happened, why they had landed or where they were. 6,579 people were left stranded without a clue, in the middle of nowhere. The townspeople nearby, having spent the entire day watching the news of what happened in the neighbouring country, and immediately faced with a doubled population, got to work without hesitation, gathering everything they had for to provide shelter, food and everything the ‘Plane People’ needed of them. For five days, they were taken in by the people of Gander and the neighbouring towns, treated like their own without asking anything in return but a simple thank you. What started out as tragedy and heartbreak – and the musical never makes light of any of the devastating effects of the event – created long lasting friendships that truly could only be forged in the most miraculous of situations – those relationships are still going strong to this very day.
The cast of Come From Away is comprised of twelve talented and versatile actors, each playing various roles throughout the performance, with a slight costume change and a new accent. These characters are all based on real people; some playing the part of specific individuals, whose stories were vital in the creation of the show (such as Nick and Diane Marson who met on the flight, fell in love in Gander and have been happily married ever since) while others have been composites of multiple characters. One character of note is Beverly Bass, one of the pilots left stranded who held faultless dedication to her crew and passengers, and whose solo Me and the Sky detailed the struggles she faced on the way to becoming the first female captain of American Airlines. Particularly heartbreaking is her bewilderment in this song at how the one thing she loved more than anything, a plane, could be used as the weapon in such a horrific event.
The Australian cast lives up to the hype of the 4 casts globally that already tell the Come From Away story nightly and does our local talent proud! Each cast member has their opportunity to stand out but it is Emma Powell as Beulah & Others who managed to steal the stage in an especially tight and talented ensemble cast.
Right off the bat as we are introduced to the folks from Gander, the accents are incredibly on point and the audience is welcomed into the small town with an ease and warmth that can be hard to find these days. As the cast transitions into those on the plane (sometimes two or three in that many minutes), the transition is seamless, as are the characterisations and accents - an impressive feat. The use of body language and intricate, choreographed movement to illustrate scenes, particularly those of distress and motion are mesmerising and definitely capture the sense of being a part of the scene unfolding. It is clear straight from the opening number that a great deal of hard work and heart has gone into creating this production, and the refine and style that director, Christopher Ashley, has executed throughout make the show an emotional rollercoaster and an absolute treat to watch.
The music plays a large role in the show, as with any musical, and acts as a character itself. Newfoundland folk music, heavily influenced by the celtic styles of old, is played by an incredibly skilled band, who have their own moment to star during a scene in the bar where there’s plenty of drink, plenty of good will, and plenty of love in the air. Rounding out the curtain call, the band once again has their moment in the spotlight and if you weren't already crying whilst simultaneously grinning from ear to ear, they'll make sure you leave the theatre truly elated with their skilful playing and contagious energy.
Of course, the show is not without its heavy, more painful topics. The attack is still at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and the discussion of post-attack racism, particularly with foreigners, as told on stage by the treatment of a kind Egyptian man, Ali, who was treated as an outsider and a terrorist by so many after the tragedy, but found friendship amongst those in town. But the overarching message is simple and straightforward; there is still a lot of good in the world; people are still capable of kindness in the most unexpected of ways.
Come From Away is one of those shows that you leave feeling good, and your faith in humanity is that little bit restored. It delves deep into the heart of the human spirit and captures how people’s natural instinct is to help others, particularly in a world where that is a rare thing.
What made the night even more special was knowing that the real life Newfoundlanders and ‘Come From Awayers’ were in the audience too - It instills the magic that people can be good.
It is truly a story that not only had to be told, but is not to be missed.
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.