CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by Travis Michael Holder 


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


Photo by Joe Funk

Second City Hollywood

It isn’t easy to poke untapped fun at our disastrous Celebrity Appresident when every friggin’ day he continues to expose himself as the biggest joke of our time in history. The creative folks at Second City Hollywood, however, have somehow managed to make Dotard Donnie look almost as ridiculous as he does in real life with their oft-extended new musical Trump in Space, winner of last summer’s Encore Award after its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017.

With original music composed by the show’s musical director Tony Gonzalez and Sam Johnides, Trump-ian bookwriters Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey double onstage in roles they surely created for themselves. Bellinger appears as the stone-faced starship captain Natasha Trump, a reluctant descendent of our own current presidential Voldemort, while Kirksey makes a few judiciously planned cameos as The Executive, a faceless, gravel-voiced Darth Vader clone with a patch of blond hair sticking out of his hood and sporting a long red tie nearly reaching the knee area of his mysterious black robe.

Set in 2417, it’s rather scary to think our National Embarrassment might have survived the 400 years since all of us have shuffled off our mortal coils—maybe collectively if somebody doesn’t soon stop the out of control asshole—but it’s instantly crystal clear who The Executive is meant to represent, especially when he tells those gathered he’s the “most just leader in the history of the universe.”

There’s no rocket science employed here—if you’ll excuse the expression—but the hour-long romp through the cosmos is sure to please with constant in-jokes referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, and its most accessible and welcome target: that huuuuuge black hole known as the current administration as it tumbles headfirst through its own shocking and unbelievable trip into its own self-created script for Twilight Zone.

Capt. Trump and her crew (Jim Shipley, Rob Warner, and Joy Regullano) are on a mission traveling through space for the ruling United States of Commerce, fighting to reach a new star system called Polaris IV while hot on their heels are the rebels manning the Starship California (Nicole Pelligrino and Jessie Sherman, led by their commander Scott Palmason). Early in the proceedings, Trump’s followers capture their enemies and, spotting one another, she and Captain Barack “Barry” Sanders (Palmason) realize they are the lovers lost to one another years before, enabling them to break into song as smoothly as Nellie Forbush when she finds her Emile. 

Under Frank Caeti’s whimsical direction, every castmember has his or her own golden moment to shine, both in song and in deed, with the bi-spectacled Regullano proving to be a special standout as the meek and frustratingly overlooked Lt. Joy while Warner, dressed in an homage to Sgt. Dangle on Reno 911!, is hilarious throughout the gayest starship crewmember since the coming out of Mr. Sulu.

Pellegrino creates her own moments, moments reminiscent of a severely stoned Sid Vicious in an old Sex Pistols concert, which the others watch with suitably patient wonder before blaming her overacting as the result of her character’s juice cleanse. There’s also an eleventh-hour surprise from Mary Jo, who suddenly appears out of nowhere as another of the Republicants most jaw-dropping posterchildren, singing her lungs out as a character who, one might assume, thinks she sees Russia from the window of the spacecraft’s galley.

No, there’s not much content here aimed to change the desperate nature of our current world situation, but hey—The Executive does get blown to smithereens at the end, so besides the nonstop laughs of Trump in Space, there is some satisfaction watching him finally leave the universe a better place.

FRIDAYS THROUGH APR. 26:  Second City Hollywood Studio Theatre, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. www.secondcity.com/shows/hollywood/trump-in-space or 323.464.8542


  See?  I'm an angel.