It’s hard to believe that in one of the most disastrous acts of terrorism, that the light of humanity can be found. However, that’s exactly what the uplifting COME FROM AWAY offers audiences at Playhouse Square on the Connor Palace stage now through July 28, 2019.
But what is “come from away”? It’s a term for someone who is not from the island of Newfoundland, and that’s what 7,000 passengers, referred to as “plane people,” are to this tiny place with a population similar to the size of Vermilion, OH. With book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this production quickly soars into drama, laughter, tears, and lifelong friendship.
Based on the true story, COME FROM AWAY is a Canadian rock musical that puts us on the planes of the passengers who were diverted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strikes on the United States in 2001. 38 planes were directed to Gander, a tiny town in the province of the island of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. The passengers constantly refer to being in the middle of nowhere, but the islanders do everything to make them feel like they are somewhere special. As they sing in the opening number, “Welcome to the Rock!”
“Welcome to the land, Where the winters tried to kill us, And we said:
We will not be killed!
Welcome to the land, Where the waters tried to drown us, And we said:
We will not be drowned!
Welcome to the land, Where we lost our loved ones, And we said:
We will still go on.
Welcome to the land, Where the winds tried to blow, And we said no!”
While thousands of people struggle to make sense of being in the middle of the unknown, the entire island opens its generous heart to the strangers. Within hours of landing, the whole island population rushes to create shelters and fill them with things like food, clothing, toiletries, diapers, and volunteer pharmacists. There is no limit to the kindness of these people, especially the people of Gander. After being grounded on their planes in the Gander airfield for over 20+ hours, being bused into the open arms of nice people is what the passengers need.
The larger story has several mini-stories. We meet the townspeople of Gander, including mayor Claude (Kevin Carolan), teacher Beulah (Julie Johnson), and SPCA worker Bonnie (Megan McGinnis). We are also introduced to the first woman pilot for American Airlines, Beverly Bass (Becky Gulsvig), and the people on her flight. Those passengers include a divorced Texan named Diane (Christine Toy Johnson), an Englishman named Nick (Chamblee Ferguson), a gay couple named Kevin T. (Andrew Samonsky) and Kevin J. (Nick Duckart), an Egyptian chef named Ali, a distrustful New Yorker named Bob (James Earl Jones II), and a worried mother of a NYC fire fighter named Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas).
The roller coaster of emotions that this production evokes comes not only from the knowledge of what has just happened in the world with the plane attacks on the U.S., but in the deep connections forged by a fantastic cast, and the earnest with which they deliver each song.
Hannah’s heartbreaking “I Am Here” is fraught with uncertainty as she calls home over and over to check on the status of her NYC firefighter son. It’s as if we’re on the line with her, hoping and weeping.
Kevin T. and company evoke nostalgia and tears with “Prayer,” as he begins with the church hymn, “Make Me A Channel of Your Peace” that wraps beautifully into the glorious tones of Jewish and Hindi prayers. It is a moment of unity in despair that unites them all in a Higher Power, even if it is in different words and languages.
Beverly and the female company rock a rousing “Me and the Sky” as she tells the story about how she became the first female captain, with her journey leading up to this point of leadership through adversity. The women are awe-inspiring as they sing the story.
There is plenty of levity in this heavy tale, as the joy of the production is what also makes it so successful in the wake of the tragedy. It’s probably what also got all of those thousands of people through such a trying time, and why this story is so amazing.
The song “Screech In” is a rousing welcome for the guests of the island, inviting them to join the natives as honorary Newfoundlanders. The upbeat hand-clapping number involves drinking a shot of “screech” and kissing a cod. What is screech? We’re not talking about the character from the TV show Saved by the Bell!
From “Screech In”
“Back in WW2 an officer was stationed here and offered some of this stuff.
All the locals were tossing ’em back without a quiver so he does too and lets out an ear piercing howls. Everybody comes to see what’s happening says, “What was that ungodly screech?”
And now it’s your turn. Are you ready?”
KEVIN: Screech is basically bad Jamaican Rum.
MAN: Screech is horrific!
WOMAN: Screech is delicious!
There’s plenty of fish, moose, and Canadian hospitality to go around. Gander even cancels its hockey schedule (*gasp*) to use the rink as a really large refrigerator for whatever needs refrigerating!
What’s amazing is that the people of Gander really did invite the displaced people into their homes. With a cast that plays numerous roles fluidly and with deft skill, the production will make its way into the hearts of Clevelanders. The 8-member band (onstage) jams with heart, and is a vibrant backup for the performers’ vocals.
The simple set consists of a backdrop of large trees and a rotating center stage, and all other pieces come in and out (chairs, tables, etc.), with a back slatted wall that allows for ninja-like entrances and exits. The lighting and sound appropriately complement these elements to allow for each mood.
If you don’t see another show this summer, make sure you see COME FROM AWAY – it is uplifting, delightful, and may restore some faith in humanity amidst the craziness of the world today.