Monday, August 12, 2019

Come From Away is a musical even I can love

We saw Sanlof and Hein’s marvelous musical, Come From Away,  a week ago  Sunday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.  We attended with old friends   Carolyn and Gordon Kirk and afterwards enjoyed a long discussion with them over drinks before hopping back on Amtrak to return home.  I have often been accused of not liking musicals yet my wife and I have seen four of them this summer and each one has been totally enjoyable.  Amateur  productions of Mary Poppins and Godspell were directed and/or designed by former Monmouth College Theatre students and that just added to our appreciation and pride.  On the professional side,  the Goodman Theatre’s production of The Music Man was a feast for the eyes and the ears and reminded us of the staying power of those rousing Midwestern tunes.

Seeing Come From Away on the day after another episode of insane gun violence in our country gave it a special sadness even though most of the show is joyous and uplifting.  In Chicago it was  a traveling Broadway in America production that ran to excellent reviews in New York last year and I now believe is running again.  It tells the story of the several thousand airline passengers whose journeys to the USA were abruptly terminated by the closing of American airspace during the 9/11 tragedy.  Some of the stranded were Americans returning home, some were foreigners on business or traveling to see relatives, and others were immigrants.  None of them knew what was happening that day.  All they were told was that American airspace had been closed and they had to land in the airport at Gander on the Canadian Island of Newfoundland. 
Older folks, like my wife and I,  do remember Gander.  It used to be a refueling stop for transatlantic flights in older planes that did not have the range to reach more western cities in the US as they made the journey from Europe.  Years ago we were on a flight from London to Chicago that made an unscheduled stop in Belfast to pick up over a hundred Northern Ireland teens who had been chosen to get away for a few weeks from what was called in those days “The Troubles.”  Irony already begins to intrude as those teens were being taken to American to free them for a few weeks from the violence on their hometown streets. In our long ago experience we were informed by the pilot shortly after our takeoff from Belfast that because of the extra stop,  we would not have quite enough fuel to make it to Chicago and would land at Gander for a top up.  As we came in for the landing all I remember is trees and more trees and no indication of anything that might remotely be called civilization.  It was a nice reminder for us when we saw that the set was hemmed in by large tree trunks. It is now important to note that we were a single plane  and knew why we were landing there. We taxied in, were unloaded promptly,  and taken to a big, empty, chilly terminal while the refueling took place.  I remember that they had some delicious ice cream available.   After a couple of hours we were on back on board and up and off.
The   9/11 passengers, over 6500 strong, came in on multiple flights  and some had to wait hours just to be unloaded.  Information was scarce and what was available implied that something extremely bad was going on. What they also didn’t  know was that they were going to be stranded in this tiny community that had no facilities to handle, house, or feed visitors in such numbers for five days.

You now have the background of this “remarkable true story”   Come From Away  was developed first as a National Canadian Musical Theatre Project and then refined further by the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre on the West Coast.  In more detail it tells the story of how the citizens of Gander reacted to this influx of strangers and how the stranded passengers survived.   The natives and the guests are played interchangeably and with totally committed energy by a dozen superlative actor/singer/dancers who migrate between their roles as either passengers or townspeople in fractions of seconds by the addition of a hat or jacket or prop.   This intermingling provides the dramatic illustration of the theme, which is wherever we come from,  wherever we live, whatever our culture we are all alike in human feeling.  We all bleed when pricked and we all have reservoirs of kindness ready to be drawn on when the chips are down. 

The Gander citizens  are represented by the mayor, a police chief, some city notables, and a number of just plain townsfolk.  For five days they open their homes,  donate clothes and diapers,  suspend a local  strike,  cook meals, and literally turn the city  hockey rink into a refrigerator for donated food.  The stranded souls include the air crews and a cocktail of people from around the world.  You have representatives of all faiths from Muslims and Orthodox Jews to Catholics and Christians. There are people who speak the King's English and people  who speak no English at all.  The  Chicago ensemble was so complete and unified that I hesitate to pick out singular stars in the firmament.  Only by virtue of their stories do some stand above others.  The vignettes are heart warming, heroic, wildly funny (especially in the kiss the cod musical number),  and tragic as we meet the mother whose son is a NYC fireman.  As she tries vainly to get news of his safety, she is befriended by a Newfoundlander whose own son is a firefighter.  Their bonding is one of the best moments in the show.  Also impressive is the booming base voice of James Earl Jones II.

The lighting moves us smoothly from scene to scene and (there must have been two hundred computer controlled instruments) provides the punch and color to accent the musical numbers.  Most impressive was the way the computer can now time the moves so precisely that it can blend the beat of the music, pinpoint a character just as he starts to speak,  or literally follow actors on a moving turntable.  The set, as noted before,  is simply a large open area, rimmed by trees, and backed up by a boarded slatted back drop that could be projected on as well as lit from multiple angles. On stage only a group of simple chairs and a table or two are rearranged in a twinkling by the cast to represent everything from spaces in town to the interior of planes.   

The music and dancing is derived from Irish folk traditions with the instrumentation featuring keyboard and electric guitars supplemented by accordion, whistle, drum,  and fiddle.  This fits the location to a tee as the two largest immigrant groups to settle Newfoundland were the English and Irish. 

All told Come from Away  combines  emotional impact with a joyous celebration of the human spirit in the face of tragedy and pain.  I shed a tear or two along the way and admit to rising spontaneously to my feet at the rousing  musical curtain call.  I’m sure this show is going to begin appearing in regional and college theatres  as soon as the rights become available.  Put in on your must see list.