Seamless ‘must-see’ musical tells of 7,000 stranded fliers
Yes, “Come from Away” is a maladroit title, but believe me that’s the only flaw connected with an otherwise seamless, unique new musical of that name.
From the first sprightly note of the first scene-setting song, “Welcome to the Rock,” the ensemble cast of 12 — each of whom easily slides in and out of multiple roles — enthralls the receptive audience with pathos and an unexpected cornucopia of laugh-out-loud humor.
Through unison singing and perfectly synchronized movements, all the while creating characters that feel absolutely authentic.
That, I suspect, is because the composers of the 100-minute, intermission-less show that had debuted on Broadway in 2017 — Irene Sankoff and David Heim — interviewed scores of real residents of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, where the story ripped from headlines takes place.
Plus scores of the almost 7,000 airplane passengers of multi-various nationalities speaking multi-various languages forced to land on the island on 38 diverted planes immediately after 9/11.
No, I didn’t exit the theatre humming any of the songwriters’ 15 tunes, but that mattered not. I left thinking that the lyrics impeccably developed characters and themes and moved the storyline forward — and that I’d just seen the best show of the season.
It’s impossible, I’m convinced, to experience the “Prayer” song (in which several faiths interact harmoniously) without being moved.
And it’s equally impossible not to at least smile at the scene in which revelers kiss a huge cod. Or the one where bus passengers are jolted by a stop necessitated by a moose in the road.
Howell Binkley’s highly effective lighting, costume designer Toni-Leslie James’ exquisite reproduction of everyday clothes and ideal stage direction by Christopher Ashley overshadow the sparse but utilitarian set and props.
And the amalgam of styles by Sankoff and Hein — two Canadians whose only previous collaboration was on a musical, “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” that was a successful entry at 2009’s Fringe of Toronto Theatre Festival — is competently backed by eight musicians who play, in addition to popular instruments, such less familiar items as a harmonium, an Irish flute, Uilleann pipes, a bouzouki and a bodhran.
But it’s really the interwoven stories that got under my skin — mini-portraits, for example, of Bonnie, an SPCA worker who despite the tumult and tension rescued cats, dogs and a pair of endangered bonobo apes; distressed Hannah, whose son, a New York City first responder, is missing; Nick, from England, and Diane, from Texas, who fall in love (and who’ve reportedly seen the show more than 75 times); an Egyptian master chef of a major hotel chain who’s first distrusted and then accepted; a gay couple that’s dealing not only with the stress of the situation but the stress of relationship; Beverley, a Texan who since childhood dreamed of being a pilot and ultimately became American Airlines first female in that job; and Bob, a figure who offers tons of comic relief, portrayed by James Earl Jones II, a trained opera singer/actor who’s not the son but the third cousin of the man with arguably the most memorable bass voice in the entertainment industry.
The Gander story as a whole, not incidentally, has been vetted by the myth-debunking website, Snopes. And it really happened the way it’s depicted (though, admittedly, some characters in the musical are composites).
Including some “come from aways” — which is what Newfoundlanders call visitors from beyond their island — getting drunk while trapped on a plane on the tarmac 28 hours.
Including $60,000 collected by passengers to “repay” townsfolk in the former World War II military base for their kindnesses. And by setting up a major scholarship.
It’s often been said that truth is stranger than fiction. This musical proves the wisdom of the adage — and, with it, the sense that altruism really is possible and that a near debacle really can be converted into healing, bonding, totally unselfish acts.
Including the idea that striking bus drivers may indeed surprise everyone by volunteering to take travelers to school shelters. That restaurants and locals may indeed cook around the clock to feed the hungry. That homeowners may indeed open up their showers and organize huge barbecues.
That stranded passengers who are exhausted, frightened and confused can get over all that and come together — even if they’re crammed into lodges and school gyms and have to sleep on floors and cots for five days.
Seeing “Come from Away” is particularly pleasing in an era in which the White House is cynically fostering policies that are exclusionary rather than inclusionary.
Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible for me to precisely capture in a review the gamut of feelings this musical helped me experience.
But if, like me, you luxuriate in heartwarming theater that makes you laugh andcry, put it at the top of your must-see list.
“Come from Away” plays at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, through Feb. 3. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $56 to $256 (subject to change). Information: (888) 746-1799 or http://shnsf.com.