Recently, I attended the American Theatre Critics Association conference in New York City, where I saw four Broadway shows for review. The final of my four reviews is “Come From Away” which opened on March 12th, 2017.
One of the most touching moments in a play loaded with them was regarding a Muslim man, who started his day on September 11th, 2001 boarding a flight, and ended the day with constant stares as he was part of a group of travelers routed to Gander, Newfoundland when air space closed. More indignities followed, with a humiliating, detailed search around the corner and instant infamy as others stared and wondered about this newly created pariah.
The moments of 9/11 and shortly after were about the American spirit, first responders and coming together as a country. Yet one religious group was completely left out of that conversation, and immediately became suspects. Devastating and awful reports of violence towards Muslims, middle-eastern citizens and even those who wore turbans skyrocketed in those days after the attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
So when this man wanted to pray, yet felt the stares as he kneeled, a Gander resident who was not Muslim found him a place in a library to pray alone, a place where he can be with his God without curious and suspicious eyeballs piercing every ounce of his being.
This moment blew me away. While she was not someone who practiced the Muslim faith, she clearly practiced unconditional humanity.
Broadway’s “Come From Away,” penned beautifully by husband and wife collaborators David Hein and Irene Sankoff is an absolute delight, a play that spends its time embracing its circumstances and celebrating the responsibilities the residents of this small Canadian town were given. The staging and choreography, directed with the highest levels of skill by Christopher Ashley, who won the best direction Tony Award, is a master class on unified ensemble work, placed on a top-notch Beowulf Boritt scenic design. It is a piece that is constant motion, where the tight-as-a-fist cast darts in and out of characters at breakneck speed with absolute silky-smooth precision.
On that day in 2001, 38 planes were rerouted and landed in Gander with 7,000 hungry, tired and irritable passengers, along with 19 animals in cargo. This number of travelers nearly doubled the population of Gander for six days, and the services that it took to keep people going were overwhelming. And when there was not a need for meals, medicine for the animals or pay phones, there was plenty of time to make connections with fellow global citizens.
And this is where this piece truly has its magic. Look at the endless stories that are explored. A shared humanity is the heartbeat of the play.
There is Beulah and Hannah, who bond over sharing the fact that both of their sons are firefighters. Amid Hannah panicking over her son’s disappearance, it is Beulah that can provide that empathy and hold space for Hannah’s anxious days. And you also have the first female American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, who worked tirelessly to try and maintain sanity while her plane was grounded. Unfortunately, she is struggling to maintain a hopeful view of the world after seeing people who used her office in the sky as a weapon of destruction.
The music, with its wonderful blend of Celtic influence and bluegrass tradition with some precise moments of ugly stick, has so much blend and variety, which is wholly intoxicating. Whether it’s the powerful company number “Welcome to the Rock,” which introduces the audience to these simple folks who endlessly greet each other at the local watering hole, to the stressful “28 Hours/Wherever We Are,” which expresses the anxiety of staying on the plane without any idea as to what was happening in the United States, each number moves fluidly between delicious composition and critical exposition. “Me and the Sky” is inspiring, but “Something’s Missing” is painful.
Many of the cast are originals to the March, 2017 opening, which is a treat. Jenn Colella is masterful as the pilot who needs to balance her professional stress with her own personal strain as a mother and pilot. There are also stories of love being found and love being lost in the face of tragedy, and just all around gentle humanity. Your truly, as a Catholic school alumnus, was taken by the gently perfect version of “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” in the number “Prayer.” And the winces of the citizens as they finally viewed those awful, life-changing images are haunting in “Lead Us Out of the Night.”
The wonderful diversion that takes place with plenty of Newfoundland alcohol in “Screech In” is a blast. Stage veterans such as Chad Kimball, Petrina Bromley, Joel Hatch, Lee McDougal, Sharon Wheatley, Caesar Samayoa and Q. Smith all channel their inner-chameleons, changing characters constantly and smartly.
Within this tragedy, bonds were formed, which made the ending of the piece terribly touching. While the final cot was stacked in the gym that housed so many, the silence became deafening, and everyone walked into the new world post-9/11 with uncertainty. These Gander folk, with their effortless humility and kindness, became models for world citizenry, and inspired countless other deeds from those who returned home after spending six days in their land.
At a time right now where things are as divisive as I’ve ever seen, this play not only represents the best of humanity, but the best of Broadway.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Broadway’s “Come From Away”
Written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff
Directed by Christopher Ashley
The Word: A feel-good piece about the beautiful and surreal humanity that surfaced from the darkness of Sept. 11th, 2001.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running Time: 100 Minutes, no intermission
The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th Street (Midtown West)
New York City, NY
Tickets range from $79 – $449
For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit the official website.
A review of “Come From Away” from New York City critic Jose Solís: