BWW Review: COME FROM AWAY Blew Us Away at Orpheum Theatre
Last night COME FROM AWAY blew us away. It received the loudest, most exuberant cheers I have ever heard at something other than a Nebraska Husker game. This Canadian musical penned by Grammy and Tony Award nominees Irene Sankoff and her husband David Hein, took 1,500 interviews of people personally involved in the infamous 9/11 detour to Newfoundland and turned them into an incredibly moving production. Directed by Christopher Ashley (Tony Award winner for Best Director) the show continues to sell out and rack up awards across the US and Canada.
On September 11, 2001 unprecedented tragedy struck our country. US airspace closed, sending thousands of passengers to unexpected destinations. Thirty-eight airplanes with diverse, multicultural passengers landed at an airport in Gander, Newfoundland, a tiny community of 9,000 people located "at the tip of the earth." The airport had been used in the 1950s and 60s as a refueling stop for transcontinental flights from Europe, and talks were in process to close it down as the need no longer existed.
While the townspeople raced to set up temporary housing for 7,000 unplanned guests in every available community building along with their personal homes, passengers fought their fears, not knowing what was happening to themselves or to their loved ones. Few owned cell phones at that time and information was minimal. Some passengers were confined onboard their airplane for 28 hours. Morale was low. Tempers were high. When they were allowed to deplane, no one was permitted to take their checked baggage, so the locals provided clothing, medications, and whatever personal items for the thousands of stranded passengers which included a group of Make-A-Wish kids bound for Disney World.
There were so many uncertainties: When would US airspace open? Would the airplanes move before sinking into the asphalt? Would they be able to beat the incoming hurricane? To distract the people from watching the news 24/7, the townspeople held a barbecue (a very funny number about stealing grills from backyards), played music (with a fabulous band that included a Nebraska native, Steve Holloway), conjured up special meals for those with dietary restrictions, and even offered showers to random strangers in Walmart. Out of the craziness, people forged friendships. And even a marriage.
Besides being a fantastic story (and it's a true story!), everything about this show is sublime. The music by a top notch 8 piece orchestra including some instruments I am unfamiliar with such as uilleann pipes, bouzouki, and bodhran. The musicians are so good that the audience remained in place on their feet clapping along to the Irish influence music well after the show ended.
Sankoff's and Hein's lyrics tell the story. There are moments of hilarity and moments of precious solemnity. Bob (James Earl Jones II) is amazed that he isn't shot hijacking grills from backyards...in fact, the people offer him a "cuppa" tea as they watch him confiscate their grills for a community barbecue. "Prayer" pictures Christians remembering the words to "Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace" alongside praying Jews and Muslims. The interplay of cultures and religions, and the harmony of their voices are exquisite.
The 12 actor/singers are top shelf, including Jane Bunting who fills in for the role of Beverly, American Airlines first female plane captain. She is truly terrific with
a strong voice slightly reminiscent of Reba who expresses her love for flying and her pain at seeing the aircrafts she loves being used as bombs. Julie Johnson is the epitome of a warm and funny Beulah, and can whip out an impressive, "My Heart Will Go On." (See my interview with Julie Johnson on /omaha/article/BWW-Interview-Julie-Johnson-of-COME-FROM-AWAY-at-Orpheum-Theatre-20190325 for some deeper detail into the story.) Hannah's song (Danielle K.Thomas) cries out a mother's anguished love for her son.
The musical staging by two-time Tony nominee Kelly Devine does wonders with a dozen chairs and three tables. The actors portray 40 characters who move constantly, taking front chair when they have the lead. There is nonstop action, which is energizing and amazing on a stage where the set (gorgeously designed by another Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt) never changes. All the changes are in the people and what they wear and how they present themselves.
This is a rare story of the human spirit and what people will do for each other. We need stories like this. You need to see COME FROM AWAY.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Performances: March 28, 7:30; March 29, 7:30; March 30, 2:00 and 7:30; March 31, 1:00 and 6:30.