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Theatre in Review: Come From Away (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

Photo: Matthew Murphy

It's a cultural cliché -- an especially tiresome one -- that Broadway musicals are associated with spectacle, often for its own sake; whether expressed in spangled kick lines, hovering helicopters, or intimate Russian cabarets that seat 1,400, musicals are seen as putting the show in show business. But, from A Chorus Line to Hamilton, the best musicals are often marked by an almost Shaker-like simplicity, allowing room for the characters to breathe and for the music and movement to excite the audience's imagination. The less onstage clutter, the easier it is to construct a story that moves quickly and fluidly. Consider the case of Come From Away, which zooms in on a small sideshow to the events of 9/11, and, without making a fuss or employing dubious dazzlements, stirs one to the core.

This thoroughly original musical begins as the Twin Towers fall, American airspace is closed for the first time ever, and hundreds of planes make forced landings. Many of them end up in Gander, the Newfoundland town that, in the days predating jet travel, provided a necessary refueling spot for routes between North America and Europe. After a rousing opening number, "Welcome to the Rock," which establishes the singular quality of life in remote, storm-tossed Gander ("They say no man's an island/But an island makes a man/'specially when one comes from Newfoundland"), the locals, many of them hanging out in the town's Tim Hortons, learn that their sleepy airport will soon be taking in 38 airplanes and 7,000 passengers.

And, without a moment's hesitation, the town swings into action. The bus drivers' union suspends its strike to transport the new arrivals, many of whom are farmed out to nearby towns. The local academy, among others, opens its doors, providing sleeping accommodations. Stores are emptied of dental products, deodorant, diapers, and tampons. An ice rink becomes a large-scale refrigeration system for the donated foodstuffs that come pouring in. The lady who runs the local chapter of the SPCA defies police orders to stay off the planes, retrieving from their cargo holds eight dogs, nine cats, and two bonobos, one of them ready to give birth. A TV reporter, pitching in, says, "I'm coordinating menus for 7,000 people," before taking to the air to announce, "The Rotary Club is looking for some fish dishes. And we have a bunch of German passengers down at the Moose Club, who'd like to try elk. No, sorry, that's the Elks Club looking for moose."

Of course, the process is messy and filled with cultural miscues. Passengers frazzled from being kept on planes without explanation for as long as twenty-eight hours find themselves in an unfamiliar place, being shuttled to destinations unknown for an indefinite period of time. Arriving at a nearby camp, a group of Africans refuse to get off their bus, mistaking the Salvation Army staffers who greet them for members of some militia. Ali, a passenger of Middle Eastern origin, immediately becomes an object of suspicion and muted fear. The call goes out for anyone who can translate from French, Russian, or Mandarin. And, as the stranded passengers sing, the sense of dislocation is acute: "It's like any of us could have died on Tuesday/And like we're dared to see things differently today."

As the days go by and the impasse continues, everyone's nerves begin to fray -- but both the locals and the stranded reach out to each other. Many citizens of Gander take passengers into their homes. Barbecues are held. Friendships are formed. During a raucous night out at a tavern, several of the outsiders are made honorary Newfoundlanders in a comic ceremony designed to help everyone let off some steam. A gay couple, visiting a bar, keeps their relationship under wraps, unsure of how they will be received; when the truth accidentally slips out, virtually everyone in the place cites a homosexual friend or neighbor. "We somehow ended up in the gayest town in Newfoundland," concludes one of the guys.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the libretto and score, keep finding new and surprising ways of dramatizing this unprecedented situation. (Their music draws on a kind of Celtic folk sound that feels perfectly suited to the occasion.) In the number "Costume Party," the passengers try on donated clothing, feeling oddly lost in outfits that belong to strangers. A tableau, showing the town stopping dead in its tracks to honor the national moment of silence in the US, leads to a gorgeous quartet of prayers -- Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim. Even "Screech In," the Newfoundlander induction ceremony, isn't merely an instance of a company kicking up its heels, because, well, it's a musical; the number lays the groundwork for the kindling of one romantic relationship and the dissolution of another.

Remarkably, the authors never lose control of this sprawling situation and cast of characters, ensuring that we keep tabs on any number of plotlines. Even more remarkably, under Christopher Ashley's swiftly paced, emotionally astute direction, a company of only twelve portrays everyone -- travelers and Newfoundlanders alike -- with seeming effortlessness. In Toni-Leslie James' cunning design, each performer has a basic costume, adding or removing one or two pieces to switch characters; James has created far more elaborate designs for other shows, but rarely one that serves the piece as well as her work here. By the final curtain, you'll swear that Come From Away has a cast of thousands.

For example: Chad Kimball plays Kevin, one half of the gay couple mentioned above, and also the argumentative head of the bus drivers' union; Caesar Samayoa plays Kevin's boyfriend (also named Kevin) and Ali, who overcomes everyone's distrust when his skills as a master chef are put to good use keeping everyone fed. In a uniformly strong company, especially vivid impressions are made by Kendra Kassebaum as Janice, the reporter whose first day on the job lands her in the middle of a global event; Rodney Hicks as an ultra-suspicious New Yorker, unnerved by Canadian friendliness; Petrina Bromley as Bonnie, the intrepid SPCA lady; and Q. Smith as Hannah, the firefighter's mother, whose frustration and anxiety are eloquently expressed in the number "I Am Here." The action rarely stops for applause, but Jenn Colella pretty much stops the show as Beverley, an American Airlines pilot; in "Me and the Sky," she recalls a lifetime spent overcoming opposition to her dream of flying, and watching it turn sour when "at 8:46 there's been a terrorist action/And the one thing I loved more than anything/Was used as a bomb."

In keeping with the show's no-frills approach, Beowulf Boritt's elegant set features an upstage wall made of weathered wood planks on which is painted a blue sky with fluffy clouds; framing the action at right and left are patches of trees; it's a suitable environment that provides plenty of room for the company to cut loose in Kelly Devine's musical staging. Howell Binkley's lighting treats everything with taste and discretion, constantly reshaping the space to fit different locations and emotional states. Gareth Owen's sound design nicely captures the percussive, driving quality of much of the score while preserving the primacy of the cast's voices.

There are moments when, in its portrayal of such universal goodwill, Come From Away flirts with becoming cutesy or too insistently upbeat; time and again, however, it steps back from the brink, reminding us that a world-shaking tragedy is taking place. This is especially evident in the poignant climactic number, "Something's Missing," in which the sadness of parting from newfound friends leads to the universal realization they have entered a new and darker world, facing a future that is frighteningly uncertain.

But what you're most likely to remember about Come From Away is its depiction of human kindness, simply portrayed. The show says that even at the worst moments people are capable of lending a helping hand, no questions asked. If that isn't a message we need right now, I don't know what is. -- David Barbour

(20 March 2017)

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