Photo by Matthew Murphy
Ahmanson Theatre / Segerstrom Center
After trying to attract a myriad of songwriters about an idea he had for a new musical, Canadian theatre entrepreneur Michael Rubinoff approached composers Irene Sankoff and David Hein, whose work he knew from their 2009 Toronto Fringe musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.
The concept Rubinoff pitched to the team was to chronicle the heroic efforts of the residents of the small Newfoundland town called Gander in the week following the Twin Tower attacks of September 11, 2001, a community who banded together to house, feed, and care for nearly 7,000 travelers from 38 flights rerouted to there when America closed its airways for the first time in history.
On the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, Sankoff and Hein traveled to Gander Laramie Project-style to interview the people of Gander and the once-stranded travelers who had returned for a ceremony to honor the event. The result is Come from Away, which features the individual true stories of some of the real people who lived through the event, many—most—of the musical’s characters even named for the actual people themselves.
Come from Away started in a 45-minute workshop version in 2012 at Sheridan College in Ontario, an event so successful the writers scrambled to finish a full-length version which debuted at the school the following year. It has since been seen in Toronto, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and here at La Jolla Playhouse before opening in New York in 2017, where it was nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, and Best Featured Actress, Christopher Ashley deservedly winning the coveted honor for Best Director.
Every honor that could possibly be awarded to this musical should be. It is a joyous, uplifting tale told in an uncomplicated Story Theatre-esque manner. As the rest of their mates stand behind them or unobtrusively rearrange the row of simple straight-backed wooden chairs which makes up most of the stage furniture available to them, the actors often speak to the audience directly about what happened there 17 years ago in their usually bucolic little backwater called Gander.
And what an amazing ensemble of veteran players this is. Performed without an intermission, each of the 12 actors fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage with breakneck energy and an unearthly collective dynamism, making one wonder if their six standbys are called on more often than usual to spell them from the special rigors of eight-a-week that must go along with this production. Of course, a great deal of the credit must be afforded Ashley, whose imaginative, startlingly bold directorial choices are unceasingly kinetic, as is the spirited choreography of Kelly Devine worthy of a revival of River Dance.
Beyond it all are the charming book and the richly indelible score created by Sankoff and Hein, both of which would at first appear to be suffering from Meredith Willson-itis yet soon redeem themselves by proving to be a lot less sappy than one would expect. The rural, down-to-earth people of Gander are extremely admirable human beings at whom the writers are not afraid to poke a little fun and the musical numbers are enough to make one want to dance in the aisles.
There’s a palpable Irish lilt to the proceedings not only accentuated by the staging and performances, but taken up passionately by keyboardist/musical director Cynthia Kortman Westpahl and her exceptional band, who storm the stage after curtaincalls (I can’t imagine this show ever not getting a standing ovation) to actually encourage the audience to turn the austere Ahmanson into one massive undulating dance venue.
Still, beyond the continuous thread of a Gaelic wink and the bareboned though magically evoked quality of a production created by master craftsmen, the true stars of this fresh new musical are the people of Gander, Newfoundland who, in this current age where destructive conmen remain in power and the ugly return of racism is systematically destroying everything so many of us have tried to conquer in our society, prove there are still good, decent people in this big mess of a world of ours who will in time of crisis band together to hold one another’s hands and make the pain of strangers easier for them to endure.
Just as I was wondering if every ounce of faith in humanity had drained from me into the ugly depths of the daily news reports, Come from Away showed up and, thankfully, has helped me breathe a little lighter again.
Ahmanson Theatre: CLOSED
JAN. 8 - FEB. 3: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. 888.746.1790 or shnsf.com
FEB. 5 - 17: Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or www.scfta.org