Come from Away review
Time Out says
A heartwarming true story forms the backbone for this hit Broadway musical about a community coming together after 9/11
When Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins premiered in 1990, George Bush Sr was in power and the Gulf War was underway. Audiences during war time weren’t really ready for a musical about the dark heart of the American dream, and it closed early. In 2004 it was remounted on Broadway and won four Tonys. Its time had come. Come from Away feels like the reverse: a musical that suits its time, is perhaps even flattered a little by it. It’s of course impossible to predict, but it seems unlikely that this show will play quite so well in 15 years. Something about its message, its attitude and its structure relies heavily on the audience’s willingness, even hunger, to receive it. We are living in dark times, and a show like this certainly hits the sweet spot. Does that necessarily make it a great show?
Certainly, it tells a warm and reassuring tale about a community who rallies for people it doesn’t know, and in that regard it is a necessary and timely one. On the morning of September 11, 2001 a total of 38 planes carrying 6,579 passengers were diverted to the remote airspace in Newfoundland, near the town of Gander. They didn’t know why, nor even where they were, but they soon learnt just how kind and welcoming the locals could be. Gander (and neighbouring towns) took them all in, almost doubling the local population in a single day; they fed them, clothed them and housed them. They broke the news of the terrorist attacks in New York, and they gave them phones to contact loved ones. And then five days later they said goodbye and life went back to normal.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein have pieced together a musical (although it’s probably more accurate to call it a song cycle) from the testimonies of the people who were there; the actors are constantly shifting between the local community and the “come-from-aways”. Thus we get the mayor Claude (Richard Piper), the local reporter Janice (Sarah Morrison) and Gander cop Oz (Simon Maiden), but also American Airlines pilot Beverley (Zoe Gertz), Texan divorcee Diane (Katrina Retallick) and Los Angeles gay couple Kevin (Nicholas Brown) and Kevin (Douglas Hansell). Everyone in the cast plays multiple roles, and one of the wonders of the piece is how clearly articulated the characters remain. We never get confused as to where we are or who we are with, and the constant movement between perspectives gives the show its spark and momentum.
The music itself is also lovely, heavily influenced by Irish folk, with a keen, driving rhythm and some beautiful and unusual instruments. It employs rounds a lot, and call and response, but only rarely becomes truly polyphonic – and in some ways this is the show’s charm and weakness. The music doesn’t challenge or provoke enough, and neither do the individual stories. One couple get together and another break up, but there’s little meaning in that rather than a personal one. Yes, people were kind and harmonies are pretty, but this is like saying universal suffrage is important; they are truisms, and truisms don’t make for great drama.
The production, as you’d expect from this kind of slickly mounted replica of a Broadway hit, is superb, even if director Christopher Ashley seems to have modelled the show on the atmosphere and staging of Once. The set (Beowulf Boritt) consists of a large open space wooded with trees and backed by a wooden-slatted wall that allows some gorgeous lighting (Howard Binkley) to stream through. The musicians are close, and at one point join the action on stage. The revolving set is used so sparsely, it feels for a long time that it’s going to be superfluous, but the judiciousness turns out to be inspired. The movement, largely of chairs and bodies, is surgeon-like in its precision, and the cast bring it to life with verve and confidence.
The performances, too, are hard to fault. Not everyone shines, but as an ensemble they certainly do. Piper is galvanising as the various mayors, and Gertz gives a stunning rendition of the show’s best number, ‘Me and the Sky’. Hansell has a glorious, pure tenor and Brown toggles brilliantly between his Kevin and an Egyptian man who is instantly profiled due to his race and religion. Kolby Kindle is magnificent as the suspicious Bob, a man not so easily convinced of the kindness of strangers. The whole cast are sweet and endearing and almost insufferably wholesome.
And this is the problem with Come from Away. It’s a show so keen to please it’s almost entirely devoid of politics – there’s a touch of xenophobia there, but it feels like the producers have included it as a palate cleanser, something to cut through all the sweetness – despite the fact it’s about the most tectonic political mass murder of our age. One has to remind oneself that 9/11 led directly into the Iraq War, which led directly into the current wars in Afghanistan and Syria; the show certainly won’t. For all its messaging about the goodwill and camaraderie of humanity, it never gets to the nub of that day, to the trap door opening onto the void. It’s hard not to wonder what Sondheim would have done with this material. You can rest assured it wouldn’t have gone down so easily.