Thursday, January 13, 2022

Broadway Tour of "Come From Away" at the Orpheum Theatre

The new year has started out a little rocky, with several local shows being cancelled or postponed. I still have a few shows on my schedule, but up until the moment the curtain goes up I'm not sure they're actually going to happen. The Broadway tour of Come From Away is still on (for the moment) and playing at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. I cannot think of a better show to begin my 2022 year of theater. It's the heart-warming true story of how the people of Gander, Newfoundland welcomed 7000 strangers when their planes were diverted there on 9/11, smartly and succinctly told in a 100-minute musical that flows from story to song with minimal applause breaks, with a fantastic score infused with Celtic rhythms and instrumentation. What I love most is that someone heard about this inspiring 9/11 story and thought - let's write a musical about it! And then they did it in a way that's not treacly, or overproduced, or any other of the many ways it could have gone wrong. They did it in a true and heartfelt way that tells the story in the best possible way. "They" are Canadian married couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein (and producer Michael Rubinoff), and their creation has traveled around the world, inspiring many, and reminding us of the good in humanity, and the incredible things that all of us ordinary people can do when we put aside our differences and connect with our fellow humans.

Come From Away is a documusical, and the smartest thing the creators did was base it on the actual stories of the Gander residents and plane passengers, interviewed at the 10th anniversary celebration in 2011. There's the inspiring story of American Airlines' first female captain, a woman with a NYC firefighter son she can't get ahold of, a Middle Eastern man unfairly profiled, an SPCA worker determined to get inside the stalled planes and care for the animals on board, a couple finding love, and a couple breaking up. All of them are such beautiful and truly human stories, that everyone can find something to relate to. The musical takes us through those five short days that changed the people of Gander, and the world. From a typical routine Tuesday morning filled with the busyness of everyday life, to hearing the unfathomable news on the radio, to the sudden appearance of 38 planes in an airport that usually sees half a dozen in a day, to the mass donations and volunteering to provide food, shelter, and necessities for 7000 strangers, to the planes finally being cleared to leave on Saturday, and finally to the after effects of the experience on those who left and those left behind. The second smartest thing the creators did was not fall into the usual musical structure of dialogue-song-applause-repeat, rather constructing it as continuous storytelling that flows seamlessly from dialogue to songs and back again. The show is only 100 minutes (no intermission), but it feels like we've been on an epic and emotional journey.

Twelve performers play all of the characters in the story; each has sort of a main character with a throughline story, but they also all play passengers and/or other residents. Over half of the cast I saw were not listed in the program as the primary cast; whether this was due to changes in the tour since the programs were printed, or understudy replacements, it was not at all noticeable. This is a true ensemble piece, with complex overlapping stories, and constant motion on stage, and this troupe of twelve pulled it off beautifully, and brought such humanity to their roles. Understudies have always been important to making sure the show goes on, but never moreso than now, and this entire ensemble is fantastic. The closest thing this show has to a starring role is Beverley, the pilot (which earned Jenn Colella a Tony nomination), and Minnesota native Becky Gulsvig is more than up to the task of portraying all of the emotion and strength of this character. One other note - it was fun to see the Guthrie's Bloody Mary, Christine Toy Johnson, on stage again.

The story is simply staged, with one set dominated by giant tree trunks on either side of the stage, reminding us of the rural wooded location of Gander. A door in the wooded-planked back wall opens occasionally, but otherwise all of the action takes place around a few tables and a dozen chairs smoothly moved around to form planes, buses, meeting rooms, diners, or any number of locations, with just a touch of imagination added. This is my third time seeing the show (not counting the filmed-for-Apple TV+ version), and this time I really noticed the beautiful and subtle choreography, or chairography, not just the movements of the actual chairs in their placement on stage, but also the movements of the cast while seated. Every element of production is so thoughtful and finely honed to tell this story in the best and most efficient way (scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, musical staging by Kelly Devine, and Tony award-winning direction by Christopher Ashley).

Saving what is perhaps the best part of the show for last - the music! The eight-person band (conducted by Cameron Moncur on keyboard, accordian, etc.) is onstage for the entire show, mostly in the shadows of the trees, but coming out to center stage for the super fun pub scene. These multi-instrumentalists play traditional instruments like Irish flute, bouzouki, and bodhran, giving the score a sound that's authentic to the heritage of the region, and also really fun to listen to. After the curtain call, the band comes out to center stage for a proper session, and it's a joyous cathartic release after the heavy emotions of the story.

The events of 9/11, now unbelievably more than 20 years ago, changed all of us. The experiences of the residents and passengers in Gander show us a microcosm of what the world experienced. The grief and sorrow, the shock and uncertainty, but most importantly, the community spirit and feeling of togetherness that followed that awful day. It's unfortunate that it takes a tragedy to bring us together and remind us of our shared humanity, but Come From Away is a gift that reminds us that we are all islanders, we are all one. One of the characters talks about all of the stories that were lost on 9/11 along with the thousands of lives. That's the purpose of art, to document people's stories to share with others and pass on to future generations. If the young people who aren't old enough to remember 9/11 learn about the events of that day through Come From Away, we're in good shape.

Come From Away continues at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through January 23 (click here for the official ticket site, do not use third-party vendors). As per usual, proof of vaccination and masks required. And since you're downtown with your vax card, it's a great time to support local bars and restaurants, which will soon also be requiring proof of vaccination in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

photo by Matthew Murphy of the original touring cast and band