Sunday, June 9, 2024

"Come from Away" Broadway Tour at the Ordway Center

I truly believe that Come From Away may be one of the best musicals ever written. It's the perfect marriage of music, text, and performance, brilliantly constructed into 100 solid minutes of constant storytelling, flowing from music to dialogue and back again, with only two applause breaks to break the spell. And the story it tells is remarkable: the heart-warming true story of how the people of Gander, Newfoundland welcomed 7000 strangers when their planes were diverted there on 9/11. Canadian married couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein (and producer Michael Rubinoff) have woven the true stories from dozens of people who were there, gathered at the 10th anniversary in Gander. Now, past the 20th anniversary of the unfathomably horrific events of that day, and the extraordinary actions of ordinary humans in its wake, this musical continues to be necessary. It reminds us that despite what we see on the news every day, the human capacity for good knows no bounds, if only we could remember that we all have the same wants and needs, and helping each other is the only way through. The first time I saw this musical on Broadway in 2017 I had tears streaming down my face for the entire 100 minutes, not because of the tragedies of that day, but because of the inspirational and beautiful stories of, as Mr. Rogers says, the helpers. My fourth time seeing Come From Away* and I only needed one tissue, but I can never see this musical enough times. The world needs it, so I hope it continues to tour, and maybe one day be available for regional productions across the world, celebrating the best of humanity. This time it's in town for two weeks, so head to the Ordway soon!

"Welcome to the Rock!" (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Come From Away
 is a documusical that tells many true stories (or amalgamations thereof): 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 (almost matching the population of Gander), 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 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.

Addison Garner as Beverley (photo by Matthew Murphy)
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 residents of Gander. This is a true ensemble piece, with complex overlapping stories, and constant motion on stage, and this touring cast is fantastic, making the cast feel larger than it is with their quick changes of costume pieces and accents. Another thing to love about this show is that the cast is refreshingly diverse in age and body type; meaning they look like real people, and are all the more beautiful for it. It's really impossible to call out highlights in the cast because every one is fantastic, but the closest thing this show has to a starring role is Beverley, the pilot (which earned Jenn Colella a Tony nomination), and Addison Garner is wonderful as this inspiring character (and also has a funny turn as a constantly love-struck resident). Also great in multiple roles are Kathleen Cameron, Erich Schroeder, Hannah Kato, Jason Tyler Smith, Andrew Hendrick, Shawn W. Smith (last seen at the Ordway as Earl in Waitress), Stanton Moralis, Trey DeLuna, understudy Dekontee Tucrkile, Kristin Litzenberg, and Molly Samson

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 wood-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. The show features 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).

the band jamming with the cast (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Saving what is perhaps the best part of the show for last - the music! The eight-person band (conducted by Bronwen Chan on keyboard, accordion, 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 Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul through June 16. It truly is a must-see for fans of music-theater, or inspiring true stories, or even for people who think they don't like musicals. Because it's not a typical musical. It's an unforgettable, transformative, incredibly moving experience.