On that morning, I was driving up the hill to a job teaching a set of spoiled young women. I was working the wrong job, living in the wrong place and involved with the wrong guy. In the next year, all that would change. There was a moment when I was united in horror, transfixed by news from the East Coast. Do you remember where you were on the morning of 11 September 2001?
The Canadian musical, “Come from Away” asks you to remember those days and to consider a silver lining, a lesson taught by a Canadian town called Gander in Newfoundland. What little many know about the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the most easterly province of Canada, maybe about the dogs whose names are just that. Both Labradors and Newfoundlands are large black dogs well-equipped for the water. Newfoundland is the world’s 16th largest island and located about 300 miles from Labrador and the mainland. Labs and Newfies are friendly, outdoorsy dogs.
The musical characterizes the people of Gander as friendly and outdoorsy. The set which features the tall trunks of trees on both sides of the stage emphasize this and also act as a screen for the musicians. If you like a good piece of fiddling, you’re in for a treat.
Gander was on the great circle route between New York and London and became the place where airplanes re-fueled–the “cross-roads of the world.” But as technology advanced, planes didn’t need to make the stop and Gander’s international Airport was destined to be scrapped. This is all explained the Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s “Come from Away.” The musical was actually first conceived of by theatre producer and Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts, Michael Rubinoff who chose Sankoff and Hein to write it.
If you go to musicals for extravagant costumes, extraordinary dancing and high-note ballads by diva stars, this is not that kind of show. Instead, we have an ensemble cast who play ordinary people who were caught in extraordinary circumstances. The ensemble cast play both the Canadian residents of Gander as well as the frightened passengers (in some cases real names were used). Claude (Kevin Carolan), the mayor of Gander, begins his day, and the residents of Gander learn about the 9/11 attacks (“Welcome to the Rock”).–airspace in the US was cleared and 38 planes set for a variety of destinations were re-routed to Gander (“38 Planes”). The passengers were for over 24-hours locked in their planes (“28 Hours/Wherever We Are”), on the runway with only rumors that something had happened. (This makes an interesting juxtaposition with the uncertainty that also characterized the Japanese American internment, a topic of the Mark Taper Forum’s current play, “Valley of the Heart.”)
Suddenly, the population of Gander is doubled with the addition of 7,000 passengers and the residents must provide housing, food and clothing (“Blankets and Bedding”). There are other concerns: 19 animals are locked in the cargo without access to water or food.
There was a bus driver strike in Gander, but after the drivers make a concession, the passengers are allowed off of the airplanes and taken in the dark of night “Darkness and Trees”) through this semi-rural area to a variety of shelters. At the shelters, they are finally able to watch the news, over and over again (“Lead Us Out of the Night”) and the passengers begin contacting their loved ones, lining up for the phone lines and there are lines for everything, including donated clothes since they cannot yet get to their luggage (“Costume Party”).
Some city folk are astounded by the hospitality of the islanders for the “plane people,” Gander resident Beulah (Julie Johnson) bonds with New Yorker Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) because both their sons are firefighters, but Hannah’s son is missing.
In about 90-minutes (without intermission), Sankoff and Hein are able to touch on many touchy topics–religion, Islamophobia, homophobia and fear of homophobia, and women fighting the glass ceiling. The character Beverley Bass (Becky Gulsvig) represents all pilots, but the song “Me and the Sky” is specifically about Bass’ experiences as a woman pilot. A gay couple–Kevin J (Nick Duckart) and Kevin T (Andrew Samonsky) find their relationship strained while another couple, Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) and Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) find potential romance.
“Come From Away” is a beautiful play about five days in Canada, a part of Operation Yellow Ribbon (Opération ruban jaune) when Canada came to the rescue of international passengers and offered hospitality and how one small community handled that week of chaos. At lot of the material was gathered in 2011, when a reunion was held in Gander.
The Ahmanson opening night included the presence of some of the actual people who were brought on stage at the ending and two real Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen, resplendent in their read uniforms, were on hand. The one I met had been working in the Yukon and advised that I take time to a trip up there.
Director Christopher Ashley has fine-tuned the ensemble’s performances so there’s no doubt of what or what the actors are when they shift from one character to the next, so fluidly you might fail to realize what a feat this is. Sankoff and Hein’s musical is unabashedly full-heartedly optimistic and a tonic for our times and even a good seasonal choice although it has nothing to do with Christmas, Channakah or Kwanzaa, the spirit of giving, loving and charity is nonetheless there. One of the most moving moments is a medley or worship (“Prayer”).
Claude the mayor sums up what happened in Gander, saying, “Tonight we honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.” I hope you also found something after the trying times of 9/11 and if so, this musical will remind you that during dark days of uncertainty, something beautiful can be forged and you go on to make something beautiful.
“Come From Away” continues at the Ahmanson until 6 January 2019. Cast away your winter doldrums or Trumpland depression with this ticket to Gander. Before it went to Broadway, “Come From Away” was performed at the La Jolla Playhouse (2015) but made its world premiere at Sheridan College (Oakville, Ontario) in 2013. The Broadway production was nominated for seven Tonys but only won one: Best Direction of a Musical for Ashley (artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse).