Broadway Across Canada’s Come From Away has landed in Vancouver, and on opening night this Tony Award-winning musical brought the audience to its feet with the show’s authentically bold and emotional testimony of humanity through the most trying of times. Base on real-life experiences, the show recounts the moments and days following the 9/11 attacks, when 38 planes unexpectedly landed in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador.
The show’s 12-person cast each play numerous characters, including both Gander residents, and passengers and crew from the planes. Thanks to director Christopher Ashley, and the musical staging of Kelly Devine, Come From Away is a masterpiece in creative storytelling. It isn’t a lavish musical with spectacular sets and costumes. Instead, there’s a simple set design and cast members hardly leave the stage; in a flash, they transform into different characters right before our eyes with the help of small adjustments such as costume accessories, or speaking in a different accent.
In one section early on, the lights are dimmed and the actors hold flashlights under their faces to depict call centre agents around the world responding to 9/11 air traffic control issues. The tremendously talented Becky Gulsvig shouldn’t even need to take her pilot blazer on and off, as her acting is so convincing when switching between playing a pilot to her other characters, including Gander local Annette. The same goes for everyone else, including Andrew Samonsky, who plays one half of the couple “Kevin and Kevin” (yes, both partners are named Kevin” from LA, as well as Gander bus driver union leader, Garth. He nails the LA urban professional persona, and the east coast accent/characterization wonderfully.
At the start of the one hour and 45-minute story (there’s no intermission), we’re taken right into Gander on September 11, 2001, as well as up into the air on the diverted planes. We follow the journeys of the various characters as Gander residents spring into action to accommodate the 7,000 stranded travellers from 38 planes (the town itself only had around 9,000 residents). We also see the relationships that develop, both among the travellers, as well as between them and locals.
Julie Johnson serves as the mother hen of this show in her portrayal of Beulah, who leads the relief efforts at the local school. Her relationship with New Yorker Hannah (played by Danielle K. Thomas), who like herself is a mother to a firefighter, is a touching highlight of the show. Another touching aspect of the show is the relationship that develops between Texan Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and English businessman Nick (Chamblee Ferguson).
One of the unforgettable moments of the show for me is the electrifying performance of Gulsvig in her solo, “Me and the Sky”, where she recounts her journey in becoming American Airline’s first female pilot – a struggle that was real back in the 80’s. Gulsvig’s stunning voice and captivating storytelling is unforgettable.
The show is not without its purposely uncomfortable moments, with the story element of Ali, a middle-eastern man who is singled out, and evokes fear and uncertainty among other characters because of his ethnicity. Nick Duckart does an excellent job going back and forth between playing the polar opposite characters of Ali, and the other half of the “Kevin and Kevin” couple.
Given its setting, Come From Away is also a great celebration of Canadian culture, including shout-outs to Tim Hortons, Shopper’s Drug Mart, and hockey. And there’s a good mix of fun, happy moments in the midst of the heavy subject matter.
I applaud theatre producer Michael Rubinoff, who first came up with the concept of the show, and later enlisted the team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein to write the book and score. The concept for this show itself is so creative; and secondly it’s such an excellent way to share so many of the wonderful stories involved. Indeed, Come From Away pays worthy tribute to the efforts of the residents of Gander, as well as immortalizing the heart-warming stories that were weaved. Do not miss this uplifting and inspiring triumph of the human spirit.
Broadway Across Canada’s Come From Away runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver until March 10. Visit Broadway Across Canada’s website for ticket information.