By Irene Sankoff and David Hein
A David Mirvish Presentation at the Royal Alexandra Theatre
Opened November 23, 2016.
Canadians have reasons to celebrate. The new musical by Sankoff and Hein is a genuine Canadian heart-warmer that puts a spotlight on the amiable, goodhearted citizens of Gander, Newfoundland at a time when the U.S. in particular and the rest of the civilized world in general were wrenched with fear over the atrocious September 11 attacks in 2001. A toe-tapping musical about terrorism, you ask incredulously? Not really. Terrorism does rear its ugly head (or heads) in context, but this musical isn’t about catastrophe—not in any major sense. Rather, it is all about benevolence, good will, generosity, charity, compassion, kindness, understanding, and any number of other virtues you care to think up in connection with the people of Gander who overcame their shock, fear, and perplexity to give shelter and sustenance to 7,000 international travellers of 38 airplanes stranded by emergency necessity at the time of the terrorist attacks on U.S. airspace and soil. And this upbeat 100-minute musical (with no intermission) finds a very simple way of driving its narrative so that multiple characters (based on real-life counterparts) remain distinctive and their individual or group feelings are made palpable largely through sung narratives.
Come From Away (the title is a Newfie way of acknowledging people who are not from their home province) is a musical that does not pretend to be a mega musical or a diva musical or a trendy pop musical. It simply commemorates and honours some simple Newfoundland folk for their unforgettable goodness over five days in 2001 when the world reeled at the staggering evil of a handful of hate-driven Islamic extremists. There is no need of a massively ornate falling chandelier or a helicopter hovering above the stage; no need of national anthems or flamboyant arias. On Beowulf Boritt’s largely bare stage, marked by tree trunks (a few shattered and spikey) and a long rear wall of peeling wood, what unfolds is a thoroughly human comedy of survival and co-existence in The Rock, given illumination by Howard Binkley’s array of top lights or background colour washes. Backed up by an onstage band of strings, pipes, and percussions, under the supervision of keyboardist Ian Eisendrath, a dozen performers (most American) perform multiple roles apiece, ranging, for example, from a gay couple on the verge of fission, a black mother worrying about her son back home, a Muslim mid-easterner treated with malevolent distrust, an English oil-company unmarried executive and the American divorcee with whom he finds love, the first American female pilot who battles misogyny in the profession, to the Newfies who extend all the understanding and generosity they can muster without expectation of anything but decency in return.
Director Christopher Ashley ensures that the pace is never leisurely or laboured. The libretto drives the story forward largely through sung narratives and spoken commentary, and the book-scenes have a distinct documentary feel to them. The songs are infectious (especially those set in a pub), though largely not chart-busters, so, the musical never seeks to enlarge its story, never reach for anything approaching something mightily apocalyptic. Only Beverley’s “Me and the Sky” has the heartache of an individual (“the one thing I loved more than anything/was used as the bomb”), but there are other stirring pieces, such as “Prayer” and “Something’s Missing” (the penultimate number). Yet, there is considerable charm palpably felt in many of the performances, and even in Kelly Devine’s choreography that only lets loose in two or three ensemble numbers. A modest stage revolve is used pragmatically rather than to call attention to itself. And the refusal to over-sentimentalize moments breeds genuine life-size emotional effects. The wide distribution of roles means that no character really is developed in the tale. They all feel schematic. Because the ensemble is polished, this deficiency is not as obtrusive as it might have been. Jenn Colella’s female pilot allows us to feel the stress of misogyny, just as Caesar Samayoa’s Egyptian Muslim is a strong reproach to Western bigotry. And there is an effective representation of Newfie benevolence in the forms of Astrid Van Wieren’s Beulah, a big-bodied schoolteacher with a mighty Karoake voice and a heart to match that size, and Joel Hatch’s organizing Mayor. Rodney Hicks supplies some sexy sass in his role as a Caribbean pilot, just as Samayoa is comically sexy as one half of the troubled gay duo. Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley supply some romantic middle-age moments, and comedy comes mainly from Petrina Bromley as a timid schoolteacher and later as an inveterate animal lover.
The overall feeling is that of a better humankind rather than the rancidity so revoltingly promulgated in the recent U.S. Presidential election where Hate and Pathological Lies Trumped Decency and Good Will. Perhaps Broadway (where this musical is now headed after its Toronto run) will benefit from its moral uplift that makes the human heart soar higher than any deplorable Trump tower.