They came from away: 7,000 stranded passengers on 38 planes, unable to fly into American airspace, they landed on an isolated island off the north of Canada on the most terrifying day of the century: Sept. 11, 2001.
Through June 30, “Come From Away” has come to the Fox Theatre.
Touching down in Atlanta for the first time, this 2017 Broadway musical tells the true story of a group of frightened and frazzled travelers forced to make an emergency stop in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador — and the tiny-but-mighty town that stepped up to comfort and console them.
While the world focused on the crumbling Twin Towers at the tip of Manhattan, an unlikely community was born on an obscure island more than a thousand miles to the north. By the end, strangers will become neighbors, forever transformed and ennobled by kindness and love.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony Award for his work on the show, this 100-minute, intermissionless musical is by turns emotionally affecting and delightfully funny. Ultimately, there’ll be sorrow and loss, breakups and new beginnings, redemption and hope for a brighter day.
“Come From Away” eschews the traditional musical-comedy arc to portray a village (mayor, police officer, school teacher, animal rescuer) and a planeload of passengers, including a gay couple, a Muslim man, and American Airlines’ first female captain, Beverley Bass. Along with former Gander Mayor Claude Elliott and real-life passenger Kevin Tuerff, Bass appeared at an illuminating talkback after Tuesday night’s opening.
Featuring an ensemble of 18, the musical has all the elements of a classic culture-clash caper (in this case: funny accents; a local dish of fish and cheese; wild moose on the loose), interwoven with great drama and suspense. What will become of America? And what will become of its displaced?
The “come-from-aways” may be in desperate need of food, shelter and clean underwear (“Blankets and Bedding”). But what they really want are telephones: They are freaked out about their loved ones back home.
“Welcome to the Rock” sets the tone by describing a sleepy town suddenly on high alert to wake up. As in “The Laramie Project” and other ensemble pieces that depict a close-knit community, actors are required to play numerous roles, as both the Canadian and their visitors. The stage business mirrors the logistical scramble that engulfed Gander on this harrowing sequence of days in 2011.
On the ground are Claude the mayor (Kevin Carolan); Oz the police constable (Harter Clingman); Beaulah the teacher (Julie Johnson); and Bonnie the animal lover (Megan McGinnis), among others. On the Dallas-bound plane are Captain Bass (Becky Gulsvig); Hannah, the worried mother of a New York firefighter (Danielle K. Thomas); gay couple Kevin T. (Andrew Samonsky) and Kevin J. (Nick Duckart); British businessman Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) and Dallas divorcee Diane (Christine Toy Johnson).
Though this touring production isn’t quite as nuanced as the one I saw on Broadway a more than a year ago, it’s very good nonetheless. Gulsvig and Johnson overdo the Texas twangs a little bit — they talk like they have socks in their mouths — but the hard-working Johnson is wonderful as the tough-loving Beaulah. Her character’s relationship with Hannah, which continues beyond the time of the play, is lovely and moving.
Samonsky has the good looks of a stereotypical leading man, and the low baritone voice to match. So what if his calm and measured Kevin T. is attached to the kvetching Kevin J.? When the group goes out for a night of Canadian-style drinking and fish-kissing, Kevin J.’s fear of being discovered as gay is ill-founded. Seems like everyone in Gander has a gay friend or family member.
Visually, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt and lighting designer Howell Binkley create a barren landscape of tall, poetic trees, while the interior of a jet cabin comes alive with nothing more than a double row of simple chairs. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are the sort of everyday wear you’d expect people to wear on an airplane, or in a small town.
The musical unfolds like a brisk ride on a speeding jet. We zoom back in time to a day the world stopped, then hold our breaths to see what’s next. In moments of such darkness, all differences vaporize, and we find our common humanity. “Come From Away” is the equivalent of a warm hug on a grim day. Out of something horrible, something beautiful was born.
“Come From Away”
8 p.m. June 28-29. 2 pm. Jun 29. 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. June 30. Through June 30. $46-$145.25. Presented by Broadway in Atlanta at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org
Bottom line: How 9/11 built community in unexpected ways
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