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Theatre review: Come From Away may very well restore your faith in humanity

9/11 musical is as genuine as the Newfoundlanders it portrays

The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away.

For anyone who has looked in bewilderment at the rabid pride some fans can show for their favourite sports team, the musical Come From Away has the same effect on those of us who look to the stage instead of the rink.

And if the opening night of the touring production that just landed on Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre last night is any indication, we can be just as loud and proud as anyone at a Stanley Cup playoff game. For good reason.

Setting the sports analogies aside, though, Come From Away has something few hockey, baseball or even lacrosse games can offer, as it may also restore your faith in humanity. It will also have you bursting with national pride at this homegrown Canadian musical that not only took Broadway by storm but has just been nominated for nine Olivier Awards (the British equivalent to the Tonys).

Come From Away is set on and immediately following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2011. As the crisis played out in the United States, 38 passenger jets were forced to land at the Gander, Newfoundland airport. Carrying some 6,700 people from around the world, this tiny town of 11,000 was called upon to feed and house what became affectionately known as both “come from aways” and “plane people” for a period of up to six days.

The stories of the Gander and area residents and the passengers they cared for become the basis for Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s musical. Based on real-life interviews with many involved, the writing team created both full-on and composite characters.

The fuel for their show, though, comes from many of the small acts of kindness and comradery from those involved, the relationships which were created, and those fish-out-of-water who found themselves on this island where the people kiss fish, talk with a strange accent, but who have the biggest hearts of any Canuck.

For a musical that doesn’t appear to have huge stakes on its surface, it is a remarkable accomplishment that Sankoff and Hein keep things compelling. Told at a breakneck pace by director Christopher Ashley, vignettes and songs are woven seamlessly, even as this twelve-member cast is called upon to portray multiple characters, both residents and visitors alike.

What makes Come From Away sing, though, is in the genuine way in which the creators present the material. Yes, there is a certain sentimentality to it, but it benefits from a unique view into a catastrophic event which, though of a global impact, primarily affected the United States. While patriotic, it skirts a potential jingoistic sensibility from this Canadian perspective. Unafraid to go a little deep where necessary, there is a feeling of hope that permeates the entire proceedings without having to rely on even a whiff of schmaltz.

It is all delivered with crystal-clear precision with large swaths of humour expertly punctuated by poignant, quiet, and moving moments. A true ensemble piece, Sankoff and Hein have also gone to great pains to provide each character with enough flesh, and this superb touring cast is up to the challenge, never losing focus and in creating fully-formed characters.

It is to director Ashley’s credit there is diversity here as well. And while there is some ethnic diversity, the diverse body types on stage are most prominent, a welcome nod to the everyday people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and as an additional access point for audiences who can see themselves reflected.

Beowulf Borritt provides a sparse set featuring tall trees, a few Canadian signs to help designate location, and a monolithic wall as backdrop acknowledging Newfoundland’s nickname as “The Rock.” It is all lit by Howell Binkley’s equally massive and precise lighting design.

Kelly Devine uses more movement than full-on choreography, which utilizes Borritt’s turntable to great effect. Those moments where a folksier Newfoundland vibe is added melds perfectly. It is all set off by the show’s band, which, under the direction of Cynthia Kortman Westphal, even take centre stage in a couple of numbers, ultimately blowing the roof off of the theatre in their encore.

One of the best touring productions to hit a local stage in some time, the current Vancouver run, is a virtual sell-out. Let’s hope the runway is cleared for a quick return so more audiences can experience a show that will not only restore your faith in humanity but may very well restore your faith in the musical theatre genre.

Come From Away with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. A Broadway Across Canada presentation. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver until March 10. Visit vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.

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