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THE NEW YORK THEATRE WIRE sm

Glenda Frank

 

Chaos and Kindness

“Come from Away,” a new musical. Book, Music and Lyrics Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45 St., NYC. $47 – 157. March 12, 2017 – open run. Tues. and Thurs., 7 PM. Wed. Fri. Sat., 8 PM. Wed. and Sat. 2 PM. Sun. 3 PM. For tickets and information: call 212- 239-6200, visit the box office, www.telecharge.com or www.comefromaway.com.
by Glenda Frank

 

When friends in Rhode Island and Chicago told me about their distress after the Twin Towers fell, I could shrug it off. I had seen the towers collapse from West 27 Street, volunteered near Ground Zero, smelled the burning and watched the dust fall for months afterwards. But the people of Gander, Newfoundland, 1148 miles away from the World Trade Center, knew the disaster in a way that was up-close and personal. Their response, like ours in New York, was to open their hearts and wallets and to work around the clock. “Come from Away,” a new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is based on the true story of the almost 7,000 stranded passengers from 38 flights who were not permitted to cross into the United States on Sept. 11 and landed in the small town of Gander, population 9,000.

“Come from Away” is a heart-warming story, yes, decidedly, and the music is lively, the performers excellent, the stage movement precise and alive – but even better, “Come from Away” tells many stories with clarity and poignancy. All works of art with a group protagonist are challenging, and most fail. The audience/reader gets the characters confused, is disinterested in some stories, or simply zones out because the work makes too many demands. “Come from Away” somehow avoids these problems. We are eager for the next voice, for the next surprise, for the next conflict and resolution. That is masterly. This is a musical you should not miss.

 

For the story: when the planes are forced to land in sleepy Gander, which many years before had been a fuel-hub, the town is confused. How will they manage? How long will the passengers be there? Step by step, they create a master plan. Empty the school, bring in yoga matts, buy diapers. Buy baby food. Buy personal hygiene items. Truck over lots of food and store it -- in the hockey rink.

News about the attack seeps into the town slowly, mostly through television. The passengers, on the other hand, know nothing and are frightened. Some have been in transit more than 24 hours and their planes are in shut-down. When the town arranges school buses – which is not easy because the drivers’ union is in salary renegotiations – the travelers, summoned at night in a town that has few street lights, are now terrified. A few, like an African family, speak little English. Some clever townsperson realizes that the wife’s bible although in a different language has the same structure as his. So he finds the right verse and comforts them through the language of religion. A traveler from Great Britain (Lee MacDougall) finds a quiet seat beside a woman from Texas (Sharon Wheatley) and changes his life. Stories like this punctuate the narrative. The bonds formed between and among the two groups of residents and travelers show humanity at its best.

The set design (Beowulf Boritt) is basically some tables and twelve chairs, one for each actor. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James does double step, not only to enhance the visuals but to individualize the many characters. The actors are adept at shifting accents, body language, mood, tempo. It is an amazing ensemble. They are a group and they step into the spotlight, talking to us, talking intimately to each other in ways we can all identify with – plane talk, partner fights, workers planning an event.

There are some real stand outs. The veterinarian (Petrina Bromley) challenges a federal mandate in order to nurture the caged animals forgotten on the plane. She recruits her husband, skips sleep, and fusses over a cat that need medicine. The charismatic Q. Smith and Astrid van Wieren play two mothers of firefighters, one from Queens, one from Gander, who bond over a missing son. The female pilot, the first for American Airlines (Jenn Colella), proves human and professional and in love with flying. (She earned a mid-scene round of applause.) The mayor of Gander (Joel Hatch with his raspy voice) who does not know what to do but leads brilliantly, guiding the town in generosity and compassion and the audience, through his monologues. Kevin (Chad Kimball), who accidentally comes out to some townspeople and discovers an unexpected welcome. And of course the young, black New Yorker (Rodney Hicks), who obsesses over someone stealing his wallet. When the mayor instructs him to round up all the backyard grills for a giant cook-out, he is not attacked as he feared but invited inside for a cuppa. These touching stories shift the moral compass.

There are fifteen songs, which range from the Celtic cadences of “Welcome to the Rock” to “Blankets and Bedding” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” Some songs feature individuals but most are sung by the company. Kudos to director Chrisopher Ashley (“The Rocky Horror Show”), choreographer Kelly Devine (“Rocky”), and the seven spirited musicians on stage.

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