COME FROM AWAY Will Be Your New Favorite Musical

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The cast and band of COME FROM AWAY, May 14-26, 2019 at the Fox Theatre. Photo Credit: The Fox Theare

Some of life’s biggest pleasures come from the most unexpected sources. One such pleasant surprise is Come From Away making it’s St. Louis debut at the Fabulous Fox Theatre May 14-26, 2019. It is a rare production without an obvious lead actor—it’s essentially an “all ensemble” show where every actor has a multitude of parts to play. Everyone in the cast is delightful, the music catchy, the vibe surprisingly upbeat for a story about the terror attacks of 9/11. That's right--somebody made a musical about 9/11 and it's brilliant!

The book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hine don’t sweep the wide range of emotions people felt during and after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, but separates them from the overwhelming intensity of the moment by setting the scene in the most polite place on earth: Canada, more specifically Gander, Newfoundland. When Washington realized the planes that collided with the Twin Towers in New York were not pilot accidents but an attack by a foreign enemy, they shut down all commercial air traffic in the country. Over 35 international flights, loaded with returning American citizens and international business and leisure travelers, were diverted to Gander’s airport. In earlier days, Gander was the “last chance gas station” for trans-Atlantic flights. With modern advances in airplane technology, Gander is no longer an important international hub. But on 9/11/2001, and for some eight days after, the town’s population nearly doubled. The townsfolk welcomed the weary and bewildered travelers and jumped into action feeding, clothing and housing these people who “come from away” as if they this sort of thing happened all the time. Gander’s residents opened their homes to total strangers, which wasn’t a big deal to them anyway—they usually never locked their doors at all.

The cast is uniformly strong, changing accents and characters with a switch of a hat or jacket. Rather than try to match them up with each of their several characters, I’m just going to list them and applaud them all for their powerful and often unexpectedly hilarious performance. Thank you to Megan McGinnis, Harter Clingman, Emily Walton, James Earl Jones II (That’s right folks, the voice of Darth Vader really is his...third cousin!*), Kevin Carolan, Andrew Samonsky, Chamblee Ferguson, Nick Duckart, Danielle K. Thomas, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson and last but not least, the returning Becky Gulsvig. She played lyricist Cynthia Weil, Carole King’s professional rival and personal friend in the 2015 National Tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.  Always a pleasure to have you in town! Director Christopher Ashley should feel blessed to have such bounty of talent to tell a complex story of many inteersecting lives in a surprisingly simple and effective manner. Even when an actor switches roles right on stage I never felt lost or confused. There have been shows with simipler stories that didn't manage to stay as clear as a crisp Canadian morning, so well done Mr. Ashley and company!

The show isn’t really a musical tourism commercial for Gander, but after seeing it I wouldn’t mind visiting someday. It’s a show about generosity, acceptance, and respect. The actors play people from all walks of life: a gay couple, a British businessman who has no one missing him at home, a divorced mother of three, a mother to a NY firefighter, a veterinarian, a black man who has spent his life always looking over his shoulder, always watching out for someone to do him wrong. The openness and friendliness of the Newfoundlanders (don’t call them “Newfies” – it’s an offensive slur) eventually gives the travelers a chance to relax as best they can while they wait for the U.S. skies to be reopened. That’s when the immediacy of 9/11 recedes and the individual stories of the travelers comes forward.  Sankoff and Hine wisely spare the audience from having to relive the intensity and horror of 9/11 viscerally. They don’t show any footage of the actual events. They barely dub soundbites through the speakers when the travelers finally get to see for themselves when TVs are set up at the old grade school hastily turned into an emergency shelter. And yet they don’t ignore it—it touches everyone in some way. Fear, anger, confusion all create unexpected situations for the “come from away.” These new situations vary from tender to funny to heart wrenching, but all are performed through both singing and acting with aplomb. It may take audiences a few minutes to tune their brains to the Newfoundland English dialect—a mix of Canadian English with a dollop of Irish lilt—but pretty soon you’ll be tapping your toes and hoping to kiss the cod yourself. Trust me.

The set is fairly sparse, mostly comprised of a few stark tree trunks on the periphery which serve to hide the band. Personally, I enjoy having the band on stage rather than in the orchestra pit.  The backdrop is a stylized Canadian skyline with a practically invisible vertical hatch that serves as a plane’s door. Simple, but effective. The main floor space is kept wide open. Chairs are lined up as seats in a plane, swung 90 degrees to become a bus, pulled into a semicircle as travelers call their loved ones for news of friends and family in New York or Washington DC. A table is added and now it’s a city hall negotiation to end a bus strike. The scenes change swiftly, but the action is never hard to follow.

I am always excited to a see a show for the first time, but Come From Away was much more fun than I expected it to be—9/11 is never a cheery subject. I laughed often, choked up occasionally, and left wanting to see it again. You can’t ask for a better way to end another successful season at St. Louis’ grand old venue on Grand Boulevard. Visit https://comefromaway.com/ for more about the production and the tour, and then grab some tickets if any are left at https://www.fabulousfox.com/. If you were unsure about Come From Away, put your fears to rest. The good folks of Newfoundland will be happy to take care of you for a couple of hours, and when you depart to whence you came, Come From Away may well be your new favorite musical.

*Corrected the original and erroneous assumption of Mr. Jones II being the son of James Earl Jones I. As a lifelong long Star Wars fan I got caught up in the moment. The truth of their relation makes no difference in my enjoyment and appreciation of either actor. May the Force help you both to live long and prosper, so say we all. 

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0