Tony and Olivier award-winning musical Come From Away has opened in Brisbane, bringing the packed Lyric Theatre to its feet for a spirited standing ovation.
Come From Away is an upbeat and uplifting musical that reminds us of the best bits of our humanity. Directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Kelly Devine, with music supervision by Ian Eisendrath, the musical follows the aftermath of September 11 in the tiny towns of Newfoundland, Canada, where 7,000 airline passengers were forced to land when the USA closed their airspace. Husband and wife duo David Hein and Irene Sankoff, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, travelled to Newfoundland and interviewed thousands of locals to draw together the threads of their stories into this heart-warming musical.
With a cast of twelve, Come From Away focuses on one planeload of passengers en route from Paris to Dallas and the prominent townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland (population ~9,000). These strangers pushed together by uncertainty and unimaginable events bond, share their fears, and even fall in love as the locals strive to house, clothe, and feed 7,000 strangers of different languages, cultures, and faiths, all of whom are scared and desperate for news of loved ones and home. Clever changes of costume accessories (with costume design by Toni-Leslie James) and smooth transitions between accents kept the characters surprisingly distinct, even as each actor took on three or more roles throughout the production. Almost a footnote to the overall narrative is the story of Captain Beverley Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines commercial plane and the pilot of the Paris-Dallas flight on September 11, 2001. Bass’ career was charted in a solo song that was somewhat disengaged from the rest of the work, but such a magnificent belter and an inspiring story that you could easily forgive it.
The focus of the musical (like most musicals, really, which is why we love them) is on the uplifting aspects of this true story – the indomitability of the human spirit, the goodness that we want to believe is in inherent in all of us, and the kind of world we could live in if we treated strangers with the same compassion and generosity of spirit that the Newfoundlanders do the ‘come from aways’. Although the tragic events of 9/11 impact the characters in direct and indirect ways, Come From Away only touches on the injustices and indignities, from profiling and suspicion to outright violence, suffered by Muslim and Middle Eastern people as a result of the event, and which continue to this day. For a cast intended to represent planeloads of people from nations across the world – mentioned in the musical, as the Gander citizens try to find translators for their many foreign visitors – there could also have been more diversity in the onstage cast, with only three non-white actors out of the cast of twelve.
Much of the music reminded me of Irish pub music, with a strong, stomping heartbeat running underneath. Zoe Gertz as Beverley Bass and Sharriese Hamilton as Hannah gave standout vocal performances, but the entire cast was beautifully cohesive in song as well as in the crisp choreography and movement of set pieces, seamlessly switching locations and perspectives. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, lighting design by Howell Binkley, and sound design by Gareth Owen transported the audience through Newfoundland, to 30,000 feet in the air, and back again. The timeline of events was tracked through the narration of the cast, either in the context of a news report or speaking directly to the audience.
As the lights fell after the final number, the entire Lyric Theatre surged to its feet for a standing ovation and remained there, cheering and clapping and stamping along for the curtain calls and as the band came forward from their positions at the rear of the stage and continued to play. Sweet, funny, and hopeful, Come From Away is a big-hearted musical that will move you to laugh, cry, dance, and reflect on the things that are truly important to you.