An Emotional Triumph of the Human Spirit!
BY SANDY STAGGS
Every American distinctly remembers where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The emotional wallop of a musical “Come From Away” now at the Peace Center through Sunday takes us back to that morning and the days that followed. But the husband and wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff that penned this story don’t mire us down in the gory details of the most destructive act of terrorism in history.
In fact, the act itself is hardly mentioned at all, not even in the speech by President George W. Bush. They instead focus on the human toll and the perseverance of the human spirit at his or her most vulnerable.
“Come From Away” is about the true account of a tiny town in Newfoundland, Canada that became the unwitting host to 38 planes that were forced to land after the FAA grounded all air traffic immediately after the tragedy. The town Gander (population about 9,000) almost doubles in size as 7,000 passengers arrive in a matter of hours.
The town is ill-equipped to handle such a an unprecedented influx of people, nor is the airport, which was on the brink of closure and at one time the largest airport in North America used for refueling airplanes for transatlantic flights.
But somehow, they do. Led by Claude the mayor (Kevin Carolan), Oz the police constable (Harter Clingman), Beulah the teacher (Julie Johnson), Bonnie the SPCA worker (Megan McGinnis) who cares for a handful of animals on the planes, and others, the town converts schools, churches and every available building into shelters and nearly every household brings food for the passengers.
The story zeroes on one such plane, an international flight from Paris that was diverted from its path to Dallas. Stuck on the airplane for 28 hours with no means of communication to the outside world (mobile phones were not as plentiful in 2001), the atmosphere ranges from anger and panic to euphoria as the flight attendants break out the mini bottles to assuage the passengers.
There is the gay couple (Nick Duckart and Andrew Samonsky); a British oil guy (Michael Brian Dunn) who strikes a romance with a recent divorcee (Christine Toy Johnson); a mother whose Firefighter son is missing (Danielle K. Thomas); and Bob, an African American passenger played with gusto by James Earl Jones II (third cousin to Darth Vader).
“Come From Away” is unique in that it is truly an ensemble piece with its phenomenal members playing multiple, multiple parts with a plethora of dialects and performs this entire score as a group with only a few solos.
One exception is the character Beverly (Becky Gulsvig), based on the trailblazing pilot Beverley Bass who conveys her story in “Me and the Sky.” And what a story she has to tell as the first female captain at American Airlines who in 1986 led the first all-female crew in the history of commercial jet aviation on a flight from Washington D.C. to Dallas, Texas.
The music is sweeping and Irish folk-influenced and country with pumping rhythms in songs like “Welcome to the Rock,” “38 Planes” and “Screech In” with some stomping dance numbers choreographed by Tony-nominated Kelly Devine.
The tuneful songs are relatable as are costumer Toni-Leslie James’ street clothes.
And while the compassion and selfless sense of duty the townspeople demonstrate is borderline incredulous, “Come From Away” shows the indelible spirit and the rallying of a community that embraces the situation and these strangers, regardless of nationality, sexual orientation, and religion (“Prayer” when Beulah assists her guests with a place to practice their faith whether Jewish, Hindi or Muslim).
Beowulf Boritt (who also designed this season’s “A Bronx Tale”) sets the action among a forest of tree trunks (many fitted with lighting). But what impressed me most was Christopher Ashley’s fluid direction that (aided later by a turntable stage) relies only on a collection of chairs and tables and effortlessly moves the action from the airplane to dozens of other location with seamless results that never break the spell. Boritt and his boundless imagination earned his Tony for this musical.
There are many touching, emotional moments and a feel-good tone that erupts throughout the story arc that people came come together and unify if only for a few fleeting days.
But an abundance of sentiment is always balanced by the incredible funny moments: the Mayor starting his day at Tim Horton’s (admittedly, I had to Google this Canadian coffee an donut chain), the alcohol-fueled cheer; the occasional comedic interjection of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”; the pickup lines by the Virgin Airlines pilot; and the singing cardiologists prepared to clean the toilets.
One note on “Come From Away”: there is no intermission, so do visit the facilities before the show!
And be sure to Kiss the Codfish and take a selfie. You’ll understand after experiencing the show.
“Come From Away” continues through Sunday, April 21 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 467-3000 or visit www.peacecenter.org.