Introduced by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, (and accompanied by an actual member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police!) the national tour of the award-winning musical “Come from Away” opened at the Marcus Center on Tuesday, to the sounds of a bodhran, a fiddle, an “ugly stick” and a mighty islander “screech.” The exuberant, touching and beautifully executed show continues in Uihlein Hall through May 12, so audiences have only a few more chances to be personally “Welcomed to the Rock,” at the intersection of indomitable American and Canadian spirit in the aftermath of 9/11.
Buried in the horrifying details and images of the day that extremist hijackers crashed their airplanes into the Twin Towers, there were a few stories of courage and simple kindnesses that helped us all weather the tragedy. They included an obscure, human interest piece about a small town in Canada whose citizens unexpectedly hosted 7,000 air passengers from all over the world, after the US airspace was closed and dozens of planes were forced to land at the nearest airport -- an outdated stopover in Gander, Newfoundland.
And on the tenth anniversary of the event, when many of the same “plane people” returned to Gander to thank their generous and resourceful Canadian hosts, musical collaborators Irene Sankoff and David Hein were also there to record the stories of all involved. Those interviews became the surprise Broadway hit “Come from Away,” which was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2017. The folksy, Canadian-nice characters, many based on actual Gander residents, were paired with the Celtic-inspired music of Newfoundland and a fluid, minimalist production style that depends much more on the artistry of the ensemble than on elaborate sets and costumes. The result is an absolutely stunning -- and mostly true -- testament to the extreme lengths people will go to, to help their fellow men in a crisis.
As the town’s mayor, Kevin Carolan starts the show off with the jaunty “Welcome to the Rock,” describing the hardscrabble life in Gander and the pride Newfoundlanders have for living in such a geographically punishing place. He’s joined onstage by an eight-person band and eleven other cast members who, over the course of the 100-minute show, play a dizzying array of locals and visitors from around the world. Looking at this group of actors, mostly middle aged or older, clad in jeans and t-shirts, you notice immediately that this is not the typical Broadway musical gang, who will be performing kick lines and tap numbers later. They look like real people.
It’s also immediately apparent that there’s no single hero in the show -- no main character to pin all the audience’s hopes on, and no actor who gets significantly more of the spotlight than any other. Instead the story focuses on the timeline, as the state of emergency stretches over five days, narrated by each of the characters in turn. Like the effort to transform Gander into a hospitable resting place for thousands of people, the musical is a true group effort.
Effort is also expected from the audience, which is asked to imagine that a dozen huge tree trunks on the sides of the stage can stand in for an entire island. Rough wooden siding with peeling paint stretches from floor to the fly-space to form the back wall, but occasionally it also stands in for a plane and the doors to its cargo hold. An illuminated Tim Horton’s sign on one of the trees indicates a doughnut shop, and a dozen mismatched wooden chairs are transformed spontaneously from a plane, to a bus, to a scenic overlook, to a school, to a church, to a rowdy bar. A spinning turntable in the stage floor helps make the actors’ movements realistic in some scenes and surreal in others. (Extraordinary scenic design by Beowulf Boritt.)
Many more key visuals are simply imagined by the actors who are staring at the back wall of the theater. “Watching” TV footage of the attack on the Twin Towers, the group flinches in unison. And when an unexpected wild animal blocks the path of the bus on its way back from the airport, we see the creature clearly, only in the actors’ eyes.
While there’s no title role, there are definite stand-out performances and some characters’ stories cut deeper than others. Becky Gulsvig brings a cool head and no-nonsense approach to the plum role of Beverley Bass, an actual American Airlines pilot who landed in Gander on 9/11. A petite blonde, when Gulsvig dons a pilot’s cap and jacket she is a commanding presence, doing her job to protect her plane, her passengers and her crew. Phoning her family back home and reminiscing about how she learned to fly, Gulsvig also mines Captain Bass’s more sensitive side. She absolutely nails her anthem “Me and the Sky,” generously filling low notes and adding a playful Texas twang to those above the scale. Her other primary character, Annette, is a teacher at Gander Academy who has read one too many romance novels. With an entirely different spirit, Gulsvig goes all aflutter when fantasizing about many of the male “come from aways.”
Emily Watson stands out as the timid TV reporter Janice, whose first day on the job happens to coincide with 9/11. Her quivering lip and moments of hesitation in front of her news crew feel incredibly real. She also shines in smaller roles as an airline stewardess and a tipsy passenger. Similarly, Chicago’s own James Earl Jones II brings fresh energy his many roles, but his most entertaining persona is that of a wary New Yorker who doesn’t initially trust all the generosity he’s being shown. Bit parts as a secretary and an African plane passenger who doesn’t speak English are made larger and more memorable for his portrayals.
While Jones got a lot of laughs on opening night, the show’s masterful mixture of comedy and tragedy elicited tears from the sniffling audience as well. The relationship between New Yorker Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) and Ganderian Beulah (Julie Johnson) was especially heart wrenching as the women bonded over their sons, who were both firefighters ,and then mourned the news that one was missing. Thomas’s anxious song “I Am Here,” struck a profound chord for any parent who has ever waited by the phone for news of their child.
A couple of the cast members had trouble with wobbly accents as they zoomed back and forth between Southern, Canadian and British personas, but most made the transformations from character to character -- aided by just a hat, scarf or jacket -- seamlessly.
And even though the production transported the audience back to those dark days of such extraordinary sorrow and loss, the opening night crowd stayed long after the final bows, to hear the last strands of the show’s ceili band. As some of the “plane people” commented back in 2001, we didn’t want it to end.