Mirvish presents Broadway-bound original Canadian musical Come From Away in Toronto
Like many people, I’ve been in a miserable funk since the US election. Since that day, the world has become a much darker place and the future looks so bleak. Come From Away, an original Canadian musical playing in Toronto before heading to Broadway, was the balm I needed to soothe the ache in my soul. It’s an unabashedly uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit in another dark moment in history. By the end of the show I was so moved that I wanted to leap up on my feet and cheer for the goodness of humanity.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the FAA grounded all aircraft across the US and closed American airspace causing hundreds of flights to be diverted. That day, 38 planes carrying 6,579 passengers and crew members were forced to land in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, nearly doubling its population at the time. Come From Away is about the events of that fateful day and how the community of Gander came together to care for these strangers in their hour of need.
Written and composed by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the Canadian husband-and-wife writing team behind the runaway Toronto Fringe hit-turned successful commercial theatre piece, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, Come From Away is musical storytelling in its purest and finest form.
Right from the first strains of the opening number Welcome to the Rock, the show has a relentlessly paced, driving rhythm punctuated with moments of big emotion throughout.
Much of Sankoff and Hein’s score is written in the style of the Celtic-inflected folk-rock that Newfoundland is known for (think Great Big Sea): jaunty rhythms and infectious melodies played on a mix of fiddles, flutes and percussion instruments. The score gives the show a constant upbeat, high-energy undercurrent.
While the show is given a Broadway-calibre production design–complete with a big set and revolving stage by scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, lit by Howell Binkley’s gorgeous lighting–the production mostly eschews the use of physical scenic elements and instead relies on a set of wooden tables and chairs that are constantly reconfigured to suggest various locations.
Much of the story is conveyed through Kelly Devine’s brilliant choreography and musical staging which references the step dances and jigs of the East coast, while filling the stage and using movement to propel the narrative forward.
The way director Christopher Ashley brilliantly fuses music, movement design, and staging is illustrated early on in the number 28 hours/Wherever We Are; a tightly-paced scene depicting the hours passengers spent stuck on board a plane on the tarmac, not allowed to disembark. The inventive staging makes the long hours of boredom and anxiety depicted entertaining and narratively compelling.
Come From Away is truly an ensemble piece; each of the twelve actors in the cast plays multiple roles throughout, requiring them to switch between a plethora of accents. This cast deftly rises to the challenge and delivers.
The plot jumps back and forth between story threads about several of the Gander townsfolk and the “come from aways” or “plane people” who landed there that day. Because of the relentless pace of the show, there were times I wished the emotional moments were given more space to breathe. However, I was really impressed by the sheer number of characters whose story arcs the writers were ultimately able to draw out in a satisfying way.
Only three characters get enough of an in-depth treatment to warrant their own songs. Captain Beverley Bass (Jenn Collella), American Airlines’ first female captain, is a compelling character with an amazing back-story told in her solo number Me and the Sky. However, there’s also a somewhat predictable love story between Nick and Diane (Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley), a British man and Texan woman, that was perhaps blown up a little bigger than it needed to be in the form of a duet late in the show to check off the standard musical love story box.
Minor quibbles aside, I loved Come From Away. Its arrival couldn’t be more timely. It’s the show the world needs right now. In these dark, uncertain times we desperately need a reminder that there are good people in the world who would go out of their way help out complete strangers out of the kindness of their hearts. As Claude Elliott, the Mayor of Gander in 2001 and special guest on opening night said during his post-show curtain speech, “The world we live in today needs a good story and this is a good story.” I couldn’t agree more.
- Come From Away is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) through January 8, 2017.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m., Added Holiday matinees: Tues. Dec. 20 & 27 at 2PM, and Fri. Dec. 23 & 30 at 2PM.
- Tickets $38.00 to $139.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Royal Alexandra Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of the company by Matthew Murphy