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When 38 airliners carrying 7,000 passengers were forced to divert to Newfoundland on 9/11 in 2001, a beautiful thing happened. The locals in the small frozen town of Gander, on a rock in the North Atlantic, opened their homes and hearts to the temporarily displaced. On a visit there in 2011, husband-and-wife writer-composer team David Hein and Irene Sankoff decided this story, combined with a thrumming Celtic-flavored folk-rock score, would make a great musical.
Times have changed since 2001, or even 2011, and people globally now are less welcoming than in former decades. There’s no doubt that Come From Away is a crowd-pleaser, though cynical times inspire a jaundiced eye, which is to say that perhaps more jaded audiences might be resistant to the charms of this upbeat anthem, even if its commercial success suggests they are the minority.
The Southern California stops for the touring production represent a homecoming of sorts, since the show originated as a co-production in 2015 between La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre, after time in the incubator at the Canadian Music Theatre Project. It made “Best Theater of 2015” lists in The Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, San Diego Union Tribune and Times of San Diego. Since opening on Broadway in March 2017 to positive reviews, it has played to capacity houses and grossed $109 million, earning Christopher Ashley a Tony Award for best direction of a musical, with six additional nominations, including best musical, book and original score.
“Welcome to the Rock” is the opening number, the first in a shouty score describing the stony island and the town of Gander. Something has happened, a catastrophe has hit, but not in Gander, not even near Gander. In fact, Gander and the story are disaster adjacent. Their conflict is one of inconvenience. As such, the players have concerns, but are generally no worse for wear.
Much of the book and lyrics consist of a swollen checklist of needs when the town of Gander suddenly doubles in population with the arrival of the “plane people.” Among those accidental interlopers is Texas divorcee Diane (Christine Toy Johnson), who finds romance with Nick (Chamblee Ferguson), a stereotypical British twit employed as an oil company engineer. The two meet when Nick takes a seat next to her to avoid a rowdy gay couple, both named Kevin (Nick Duckart and Andrew Samonsky), whose relationship is in crisis. Samonsky’s lumberjack shirt-wearing Kevin has the more substantial arc; he feels his way through new terrain to a fresh sense of self, embodying one of the show’s vaguely defined themes.
Tony nominee Jenn Colella from the Broadway cast leaves big shoes to fill as Beverly, the pilot, but Becky Gulsvig gives it her level best. She crackles with anxiety and emotionally engages the audience, speaking in a nasally southern accent that rounds out her character in her dialogue scenes and bleeds into her singing voice. Her “Me and the Sky,” an aria dropped in late in the show about combatting sexism to be a pilot, is a high point.
As Hannah, Danielle K. Thomas tackles “I Am Here” with palpable emotion, singing about the helplessness she feels in isolation, wondering about the fate of her Manhattan firefighter son. As Bonnie, an SPCA worker bent on helping the small creatures, including a pregnant Bonobo chimp, Megan McGinnis captures the earnest do-gooder nature of her character and that of the show. Harter Clingman, as the local cop, amusingly embodies the town’s vernacular charm and folksy sense of humor.
James Earl Jones II earns laughs as a native New Yorker, initially suspicious of local goodwill, who is transformed through his five days in Gander. Part of his lesson is that some people are friendly just because they are. In fact, in Gander everyone is friendly. There are no villains or even people with shady motives in Come From Away, which is one of the reasons Hein and Sankoff’s book is almost as bland as their score, which mostly favors boisterous ensemble numbers over ballads. But the band does a nice job, taking center stage at the end to rock the curtain down.
Ashley (Memphis, Escape to Margaritaville) admirably earns his directing plaudits by managing rush-hour traffic, with most of his 12-person ensemble working multiple roles on Beowulf Boritt’s spare set, featuring practical tables and chairs flanked by tree trunks.
There’s no way Hein and Sankoff might have guessed their musical about cross-border hospitality would be opening in Los Angeles just days after U.S. Border Patrol Agents tear-gassed women and children seeking asylum only a few hours south. Still, Come From Away will leave most audience members with an upbeat smile, maybe even encouraging some to show a little kindness to strangers in need.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan Mcginnis, Andrew Samonsky, Danielle K. Thomas, Emily Walton, Marika Aubrey, Jane Bunting, Michael Brian Dunn, Julie Garnyé, Adam Halpin, Aaron Michael Ray
Book, music & lyrics: Irene Sankoff, David Hein
Director: Christopher Ashley
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen
Musical staging: Kelly Devine
Presented by Junkyard Dog Productions Jerry Frankel, Latitude Link Smith & Brant Theatricals, Steve & Paula Reynolds, David Mirvish, Michael Rubinoff, Alhadeff Productions, Michael Alden & Nancy Nagel Gibbs, Sam Levy, Rodney Rigby, Spencer Ross, Richard Winkler, Yonge Street Theatricals, Sheridan College, Michael & Ellise Coit, Ronald Frankel, Sheri & Les Biller, Richard & Sherry Belkin, Marlene & Gary Cohen, Allan Detsky & Rena Mendelson, Lauren Doll, Barbara H. Freitag, Wendy Gillespie, Laura Little Theatricals, Carl & Jennifer Pasbjerg, Radio Mouse Entertainment, The Shubert Organization, Cynthia Stroum, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Gwen Arment/Molly Morris & Terry McNicholas, Maureen & Joel Benoliel/Marjorie & Ron Danz, Pamela Cooper/Corey Brunish, Demos Bizar/Square 1 Theatrics, Joshua Goodman/Lauren Stevens, Just for Laughs Theatricals/Judith Ann Abrams Productions, Bill & Linda Potter/Rosemary & Kenneth Willman
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