Theater Review: COME FROM AWAY (North American Tour)

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by Dan Zeff on February 24, 2022

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

A TONIC FOR OUR TIMES

Come from Away tells the story of how residents of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, in Canada suddenly found themselves the host to 7,000 airline passengers grounded in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City.

The show doesn’t deal wallow in the high drama of the situation, instead primarily etching convincing portraits of how the confused, hungry, and angry passengers were welcomed into the Gander community for five days of improvisational hospitality. It’s heartwarming in the very best sense of the word, leavened with a surprising amount of humor considering the enormity of the tragedy that engulfs the passengers and the townspeople. The show has won a bushel of awards for its North American and British productions, no production I would venture better than the exhilarating and compassionate staging at the Cadillac Palace as part of a national tour.

Come from Away is the work of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a Canadian husband and wife team responsible for the show’s book, music, and lyrics. The show opens with a brief view of daily life in Gander, a community of 9,000 that was once a major international aviation refueling stop but, now a backwater town in northeast Canada. In a matter of a few hours, the everyday bustle of the town is engulfed by the torrent of passengers grounded in 18 planes as much of north America goes into lockdown. Nobody knows for sure just what has happened, but they know is must be overwhelming.

Sankoff and Hein bring their people to wonderful life (some real and others composites) through a blend of singing, dancing, and dialogue. There are no hit songs but each number works effectively within the narrative. The production runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, employing a dozen performers of remarkable versatility and skill. Their roles shift between the passengers and the townspeople, each actor limning distinct personalities of the visitors, who consist of travelers from the United States as well as other countries, and the men and women of Gander.

The book includes portraits of two gay American men stressed out by their situation, a British engineer starting an impromptu relationship with a Texas divorcee, a Muslim passenger enduring the mistrust of the other characters, and a passenger desperately trying to reach her son, a missing fireman at the scene of the New York City disaster. All the mini stories flow across the stage, authentically portraying average men and women attempting to deal with an unimaginable crisis. The climax is a party involving visitors and townspeople building into a hootenanny that had the opening night audience roaring.

The production opened in 2015 under the direction of La Jolla Playhouse director Christopher Ashley and his staging is a wonder of continuous music, dialogue, and movement in synch with the story. The performers shift the audience along in the multi narratives with a clarity that reflects many hours of intense rehearsal. The entire cast is on stage for virtually the entire show but no character gets lost or blurred as the performers shift between townspeople and passengers, reminding me of the ensemble work in A Chorus Line, and there can be no greater praise than that.

Ashley’s chief coworkers in shaping the staging are Beowulf Bortitt (scenic design), Toni-Leslie James (costume design), Howell Binkley (lighting design), Kelly Devine (musical staging), and Gareth Owen (sound design). They have united in creating a classic of group stagecraft. And an ovation to the Telsey Office, the casting operation that put together the ensemble, going a perfect 12 for 12 in their choices. Come from Away employs a collection of star performances and they are listed here as equally outstanding — Sharone Sayegh, Harter Clingman, Marika Aubrey, Julia Knitel, James Earl Jones II (the sole local actor), Kevin Carolan, Jeremy Woodard, Chamblee Ferguson, Nick Duckart, Danielle K. Thomas, Julie Johnson, and Christine Toy Johnson.

The show’s score is performed stage right by seven musicians, directed by Myrna Conn, who supply a flawless cushion of music that smoothly shifts from light rock to Irish folk. Indeed, everyone on stage gave off an aura of enthusiasm and commitment that garnished their professionalism. And why not? If I was performing in this show I would run to every performance.

photos by Matthew Murphy

Come from Away
first North American tour
reviewed at Cadillac Palace Theatre
ends on March 6, 2022 in Chicago
for tickets visit Broadway in Chicago

TOUR CONTINUES
for dates and cities, visit Come from Away

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