There’s a certain somber and sober tone you expect from shows about disasters. Representations of recent genocides or terrorist attacks especially take on an almost religious nature, a hushed sacrality where emotional highs can only be wrenching and painful. Not so for East Coast premiere 9/11 musical Come from Away, a toe-tapping Stomp and Holler affair at Ford’s Theatre, now Broadway-bound for a Shubert theater in February 2017.
This brisk 100 minutes smoothly dodges being a comedy about the events of September 11 by the grace of heart-warming Canadian charm and compelling personal stories. Come From Away doesn’t purport to tell the story of 9/11. Instead, it follows a tributary of that tragedies’ effect on Gander, Newfoundland where thousands of passengers were stranded when US airspace shut down.
Reflecting a common feeling of that day, Director Christopher Ashley maintains a frenetic pace. He never lets off the gas, but, by the same token, rarely allows for stillness. The wall-to-wall numbers start out thumping with a traditionally-tinged Welcome to the Rock. What’s traditional Newfoundland music? Think Celtic pirate music, except they’re Canadian and fishing.
But there’s plenty of Broadway in this musical. You’ll find it in Ian Eisendrath’s arrangement of layered group numbers and a host of lovely voices from this veteran and mostly out-of-town cast. Not surprising given that Come from Away pops in and out of at least a dozen plotlines of individuals experiences of the stranding in Gander. There’s no accident in every one of the 12 actors has “and others” listed after their character names in the program.
If anyone feels like the lead character, it’s Jen Colella, who leads as Captain Beverley, Annette (Gander’s librarian), and others. Musically, her heart-stopping Me And The Sky is one of the few straight-up solo numbers in this play. As an actor, she gets some meaty moments as the pilot and some funny ones as Annette. Most of all, her work here is representative of the show: they are both exceptional at turning emotion on a dime. Like knowing how to pull the tablecloth away so that the dishes aren’t disturbed, the trick requires finesse, doesn’t get old, and keeps the suspense up in this emotional onslaught of a musical.
Joel Hatch plays Gander mayor Claude with a combo of determination and grandfatherly cuteness. He’s at least one character for a plurality of the play with some MC-like song features, best in in the finale. As Kevin 1 of a dual Kevin gay couple, Chad Kimball gets a pretty Prayer that shows off his (underutilized in this play) pop pipes. But that’s about where easily describable characterization ends, since most other actors fill in bunches of roles.
Some of the actors did well with the plethoric task of characters. Q. Smith stood out with gravity in the most serious moments of the play as Hannah, mother of a New York firefighter. Caesar Samayoa convinced as both Ali, international chef ostracized for his religion, and Kevin 2. But what impressed me most was the overall ability of the cast to effectively keep me following along with their clear characterizations.
Come From Away
closes October 16, 2016
Details and tickets
Flow was the watchword of the design as well. As elegantly austere as Beowulf Boritt’s tree-adorned turntable set is, Howell Binkley’s lights are that extravagant. But his work is not just flashy multicolored textures on the back wall to create gorgeous effects. His lights compel focus and energize the wild pace of Come From Away by deftly flicking from look to look and making strong changes on emotional turns.
Kelly Devine’s choreography has a similar feel to Boritt’s set: these characters only dance when they need to. But the movement is effective for its choosiness. She pulls off some fun tricks with the turntable set that make it feel more purposeful than gimmicky, including one with some chairs that made the audience I was in go “Ooooooooo!”
Their assessment is pretty fair. Everything about Come From Away is built for big-eyed impressiveness. That makes its future Broadway effervesce potential, though we’ll see how New Yorkers react to a show anchored in 9/11 that isn’t about them. For the run at Ford’s, this musical is perfect for tourists and locals alike: bouncing and beautiful at a breakneck pace. It’ll be so much fun that ypu’ll hardly notice the paucity of pace variation and lack of overarching story through the speed and not-so-serious angle on what is now an American historical event. Just let this new musical wash over you and you’ll leave with a smile.
Come from Away . Book, Music and Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley . Featuring Jane Bunting, Geno Carr, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Kendra Kassebaum, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, Kevin McAllister, Happy McPartlin, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Sharon Wheatley, and Harry A. Winter. Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt . Lighting Design: Howell Binkley . Sound Design: Gareth Owen . Arrangements: Ian Eisendrath . Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen . Dialect: Joel Goldes . Choreography: Kelly Devine . Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast . Production Stage Manager: Arturo E. Porazzi . Presented by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.