Review: COME FROM AWAY (North American Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 1, 2019

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Maybe because we need them so much, miracles are hard to take but crucial to believe. Come from Away is a miracle musical in every way. Just as Lanford Wilson wrote The Fifth of July to reckon with the aftermath of a too-hopeful holiday, this Canadian wonderwork confronts — and redeems — the horrors that happened on September 11, 2001.

To prove that history sometimes compensates for atrocity, something unexpectedly restorative and gratuitously good happened in Gander, Newfoundland. After passenger planes were banned from the skies in an effort to end more tragic hijackings, this small town on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean became the accidental destination of 38 planes diverted to its large and often unused airport.

Suddenly the residents of an obscure island had to cope with 7,000 immediate guests. It’s an occasion to which many places would not have risen. Pent up and trapped in increasingly unpleasant airplanes, these displaced persons are eager to “touch down.” Of course, their sudden dislocation presents a logistical nightmare and a crisis of capacities to contend with diverse “guests” who just want to go home.

Canada’s maritime province had to deal with culture clashes, dietary differences, sanitary challenges, imperatives of food, clothing and lodging, 19 stray animals, and the sheer psychic shock of doubling your town’s population in a matter of days. And never enough pay phones to call home.

In 100 taut and tender minutes (no intermission), this 2015 musical — book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein — chronicles the week after four planes crashed. We return to a chaos and confusion that’s impossible to forget. But, slowly and wonderfully, there’s also a gradual gift of grace amid the “Darkness and Trees”: Panic melds into trust and stranded wayfarers become serendipitous friends (“Wherever We Are”).

The opening chorus “Welcome to the Rock” sets the table for a tale of the “kindness of strangers.” We glimpse a labor of love in a land where the people are necessarily less harsh than the terrible weather and ancient granite (“Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere”). Shelter takes on a new meaning, likewise “Blankets and Bedding” for the folks who have “come from away.” Two couples, one gay and one not, are tested in dramatically different ways.

This catalyzing disruption feels like a huge “time out” (“Stop the World”) to resort priorities and jump start gratitude. Religion (“Prayer”) proves a leveling consolation to connect refugees and natives. An old hymn takes on new meaning (“Where there is hatred/Let me sow love”).

“Lead Us Out of the Night”: The title says all as this one-act, unexpectedly hilarious and deeply moving, replenishes our badly depleted faith in humanity. These seeming castaways, wearing discarded emergency clothes, feel like they’re at a “messed-up costume party,” their identities in limbo like their lives. During an impromptu party (“Screech In”), the “plane people,” initially hesitant about accepting so much unearned hospitality, become honorary Newfoundlanders once they “kiss the cod.”

It’s not all unalloyed happiness, this discovery that there really is “room in the inn”: A fish very much out of water, a Muslim passenger Ali (Nick Duckart) is humiliatingly strip-searched as he boards his return flight. After so much excitement and a crash course in compassion, Gander’s good citizens inevitably feel a let-down (“Something’s Missing”). Meanwhile, the travelers must return to a damaged world, one learning that her firefighter son had died with the Twin Towers.

Ten years later, a reunion in Gander sees Mayor Claude (Kevin Carolan) proclaim, “Tonight we honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.” Too busy to hate — Atlanta’s slogan really belongs to Gander.

Superbly shaped by director Christopher Ashley, the national tour, now playing Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, features eighteen sterling performers from inside out. With care to spare, they dig into the clever lyrics and irresistible melodies of 15 storytelling songs. Watching this priceless ensemble instantly switch roles from coping locals to befuddled outsiders until both sides bond — it’s a joy to take home and cherish.

No question, in 2019 Come from Away is a tonic, a balm and a blessing.

photos by Matthew Murphy

Come from Away
first North American tour
reviewed at Cadillac Palace Theatre
ends on August 18, 2019 in Chicago
for tickets visit Broadway in Chicago

for dates and cities, visit Come from Away

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