Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 12, 2017
Come From Away Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Musical staging by Kelly Devine. Music supervision by Ian Eisendrath. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Gareth Owen. Orchestrations by August Eriskmoen. Arrangements by Ian Eisendrath. Cast: Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, kendra Kassebaum, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Sharon Wheatley, Josh Breckenridge, Susan Dunstan, Tamika Lawrence, Tony LePage.
They've focused on the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, to which more than three dozen planes were rerouted when American airspace was closed following the terrorist attacks. The argument seems to be that, beyond the inherent tension of the situation (what's happening? Is everything okay? Can I call my family?), there's drama to be found in the bizarre and unrepeatable mixture of 7,000 people from all over the world (the title taken from the local lingo, as both verb and noun, refers to someone from outside Gander) who found themselves thrust together under the worst circumstances imaginable. Maybe. But in their attempts to be comprehensive and all-inclusive, Sankoff and Hein have created a quasi-documentary musical that struggles to do much more than document.
There are a few key characters: Claude, the mayor, who's tasked with making the logistics work; Beverley, an American Airlines pilot who made history of one sort and is now watching a different kind unfold; Diane and Nick, an odd couple (she's from Texas, he's from London) who meet while stranded; two boyfriends, both named Kevin, who find their relationship tested by the strain; and Ali, a Middle-Eastern man who finds himself ostracized because of his race. In the ensuing series of scenes that unfolds during the intermissionless 100-minute running time, we see them and others interact and intersect to construct a more vivid picture of humanity than might have been observable "on the ground" in the U.S., where fear and uncertainty reigned for much of the time the show covers.
Noble though that goal may be, it's a potentially messy one that demands rigorous attention to emotional details rather than mere reportage, and that's a challenge Sankoff and Hein aren't up to. (A similar problem affected the last show of theirs I saw, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival.) We see a swath of characters, true, if one that's almost too crowdedthe 12 actors play 40-some rolesto leave enough time for delving deeply into anyone's personality. Generalities, then, are the order of the day.
The score comes closest to providing it, bearing a delightful mix of sounds that blend rustic Gander strains with more sophisticated American-style melodies, while ensuring that they all sound as if they belong together. (The orchestrator is August Eriksmoen; Ian Eisendrath leads the high-octane, down-home band.) But content-wise, it's not a lot better than the book. The opening number ("Welcome to the Rock") is a heavy-duty thump-fest that sets the scene, if with some unsteady lyrics ("They say no man's an island, but an island makes a man"); better still is the brighter and more rollicking party that results when the outsiders and the townsfolk bond in the local tavern. (The spirited, appropriately informal choreography is by Kelly Devine.)
But set aside the expected, or perhaps required, songs about the amazement of plane after plane arrive, the troubles of taking care of all the refugees, and the passengers marveling at what happens when life returns to something approaching normal. How crucial, really, are numbers about trying on strangers' clothes, praying, or Beverley musing on the magic of air travel? What do they tell us that we couldn't learn somewhere else? They reinforce what we already see rather than, as in truly great musicals, expand our vision.
Despite its unusual subject matter and perspective, Come From Away can't escape its own generic nature; it lacks the necessary fuel. The story doesn't stun. There aren't any magical characters who desperately need to sing, who captivate us with the way they grow and change and inspire us to do the same. It's a portrait of a place, and those within it, but without the intricacies that might bring them to life. You can write Show Boat or you can write The Laramie Project, but they don't naturally fit together. And Sankoff and Hein haven't figured out how to make all their disparate elements work.
What they have done, however, is, like those trapped in Gander, made the best of a bad arrangement. Through Gatling gun-like deployment of the scenes and little if any wasted script space, they've created one of the most energized and exhilarating evenings of static I've ever seen. Director Christopher Ashley picks up all of the writers' cues, and keeps things moving at a dizzying clip, but without ever rushing. He can't avoid an arid feel at some points; Beowulf Boritt's strange barroom-meets-backwoods set is inhospitable to begin with, but it leaves so much dead space onstage that the small cast is never able to fill it (I found myself wondering how much better it all might look in an Off-Broadway-size house). But overall, his work is excellent.
So, too, are the actors. Standouts include Jenn Colella as the razor-sharp, dream-wrangling Beverley; Joel Hatch as the brusque but likable Claude; Chad Kimball and Cesar Samayoa as the Kevins; and Astrid van Wieren as a harried teacher who must provide comfort to the teeming displaced hordes. But everyone blends well and segues smoothly between their many character changes, many times giving you the feeling that you're watching far more performers than you actually are.
Whether with a crew of 50 or just one, though, this enterprise would have difficulty taking off. Sankoff and Hein are (married) writers who first developed it in their native Canada, so it's understandable if, for them, September 11 remains remote enough to be symbolized by a Newfoundland airport. But there's a real rawness about that day and its aftermath that remains on this side of the border, and any treatment must understand and respect that, even if it uses it as a jumping-off point for something else entirely. Of the many things Come From Away wants to be about, September 11 is pretty far down on the list. That robs it of the urgency, authenticity, and soul it would need to be a grand trek rather than a mildly pleasant detour.