It was approximately 7:38 PM on opening night of Come From Away at the Orpheum Theatre. Eight minutes into the show and I began to cry. As I sit down to write this review it’s 11:00 PM, an hour and a half since the show ended and the tears have just about stopped coming now. Don’t take that wrong, this is not a dark show, though it deals with one of the darkest hours in my lifetime. It isn’t a sad show, though many of the tears are of loss. Most of the tears are happy tears. The tears that come to us when we recognize the inherent good in our fellow man. When we see people at their best, pulling together to help one another. The tears that well up and overflow when we are overcome by the coming together of a community. The show runs around one hour and 40 minutes and you are going to spend much of it either laughing or crying…or both. You expect to be wiped out after an evening like that. But it is the kind of emotion that uplifts you rather than drains you. Come From Away is simply one of the most emotionally invigorating musicals I’ve ever experienced. I should feel drained, but I feel renewed.
Come From Away is the musical written by Irene Sankoff & David Hein based on the true events of Sept 11th 2001 and the days following. After two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and another crashed into the Pentagon, all air travel was grounded and the airspace above the US was closed. All airplanes inbound were diverted to the nearest airfield outside the US. Thus 38 airplanes carrying about 7,000 passengers found themselves stranded in the small town of Gander on the Island of Newfoundland. This small town and its neighboring towns took in these 7,000 passengers from all over the world, fed them, gave them shelter, clothed them, and made them honorary Newfoundlanders. The show does what must always be done with stories about something as large as 9/11, it focuses on a specific aspect and a smaller group of people. This approach allows us to comprehend the incomprehensible, by taking a huge event and bringing it down to a personal level. We get to know key members of the community, passengers, and the pilot of one of the planes and through them we see this moment in history from a new perspective. The overall focus of the play is on the community coming together and caring for these stranded people. Relying heavily on humor that seems very Newfoundlandish but also very Minnesotan. While the play doesn’t dwell on the tragedy of 9/11 and the negative reactions that came from it, it also doesn’t ignore them. And those aspects are definitely responsible for their fair share of those ever present teardrops.
Come From Away is an important work of art, but it doesn’t feel like it should be. A lighter more energetic musical it would be hard to find. The show moves with a pace and humor of a broad comedy. It is a testament not only to the writing but the direction by Christopher Ashley that while the show barrels ahead from one witty lyric to the next, that with all the joy we are feeling, we are also constantly aware of 9/11. In some ways it reopens a wound that I felt had long ago healed over. But in doing so it also begins to heal that wound again at the same time. This is a tightrope walk I can’t really wrap my head around. It’s at once life affirming, joyous, funny, and moving while also reminding us of a tragedy that changed our world, that shocked and saddened us to our very cores. Yet these disparate elements are not at war with each other, they live organically intertwined, as if the one wouldn’t work without the other.
It’s hard to single out the cast, they are all fantastic. It’s refreshing to see a cast filled with such talent, that look like they could really be the characters they are portraying rather than impossibly perfect looking people playing regular folks. They all take on multiple characters between the townsfolk and the passengers on the planes I’m sure every cast member plays at least four different roles. Yet, I was never confused at who anyone was playing on stage at anytime. I do want to give a shout out to MN native Becky Gulsvig. A friend informed me she is from Moorhead, right across the river from where we grew up in Fargo, while younger than we are, I’m told she played the lead in some Trollwood productions back in the day so I’m sure I probably saw her years ago in something. Always fun to see someone from home making it big. Here she is playing Beverly an airplane pilot, one of a handful of roles that gets a little more playtime then most of the others. She’s very good as is Kevin Carolan who plays the Mayor of Gander. In terms of the songs, it’s odd, I loved the music, though many of the songs seem to be very similar to each other. Most of them seem to just be musical accompaniment to the singing of the dialogue. There are several songs that do stand out in a more traditional sense such as the opening “Welcome to the Rock” and “Me and the Sky” which is beautifully performed by Ms. Gulsvig. I also really like “Stop the World” which is a love song duet performed by Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson. And before we leave the music, it must be noted that the musicians and the instruments they utilize are perfectly minimal. After the cast curtain call the musicians get their own and it was great to see them so into it and to get a little moment to highlight their talents. There is a nice celtic aspect to some of the music and the mandolin, Whistle, Fiddle, and Bodhran are perfect to bring that out.
Come From Away runs through January 23rd at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/broadway/ .While it does deal inherently with a very real world tragedy it is ultimately about people helping each other and being their best selves. This is a theme we could do with more of. I think the more people who see this show the more of that we’ll see out in the world. Don’t let the subject matter put you off this or limit who attends, this show is appropriate for anyone 12 and up. I think it’s a great show for a family to go together to see as it can lead to some very good conversations afterwards and it’s modeling excellent citizenship.