Come From Away: The Quintessence of Canadian Theatre

Photo courtesy of Chris Bennion, La Jolla Theatre
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 Attacks, the United States’ Federal Aviation Agency ordered all aircraft out of American airspace. To assist with this effort, the Canadian Government launched Operation Yellow Ribbon, diverting 225 planes with over 38,000 passengers to airports in Canada.

As a result, the quaint town of Gander, Newfoundland became the temporary home for stranded passengers. For one week, the town’s population was effectively doubled as Gander’s airport played host to over 6,500 individuals from across the globe. Canadian writing duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein bring this event to life in Come From Away, the newest musical to open on Broadway this spring.

During the December Break, I was gifted tickets to see the production in its pre-Broadway run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. I admit, I was initially skeptical of the production; the idea of a ‘9/11 musical’ made me uncomfortable.

Fortunately, Sankoff and Hein choose not to focus the script on the larger context of 9/11. Rather, the story depicts the community of Gander and how it assembled to assist stranded passengers in their time of need. The story is based on hundreds of interviews Sankoff and Hein conducted with the people from Gander as well as the individuals who were stranded there.

The production’s first number, “Welcome to the Rock”, effectively roots the audience in rural Newfoundland. The show’s Celtic rock score is accompanied by an eight-person band that can be seen rocking along throughout the show’s various musical numbers.

Come From Away is carried by its brilliant ensemble of twelve actors, who, throughout the production, seamlessly switch between playing Newfoundlanders and the airline passengers. In the absence of an intricate set, the production relies on the cast’s physicality to create the landscapes of each scene. Some of the most profound imagery in the production is found in these movement-intensive sequences, where the ensemble, under the brilliant direction of Christopher Ashley and choreographer Kelly Devine, uses movement to transport the audience into the world of the story.

The show is rife with enchanting, surprising, and often humorous stories as the audience is invited to look at the complexities that the influx in ‘come from aways’ (local slang for foreigners), bring to the town – whether it be the Rabbi who fashions a Kosher kitchen in the local elementary school for Jewish passengers, the SPCA worker who defies police orders by breaking into the grounded planes to feed animals trapped in the cargo bays, or the locals who use a hockey rink to freeze the abundance of donated food. While the production may be a celebration of humanity, it is far from idealistic. Sankoff and Hein’s script is nuanced in illustrating the not-so inspirational events in Gander. One such example is in their depiction of a Muslim character whois treated with suspicion by fellow passengers after speaking Arabic on the phone.

The only solo number in the production is performed by Jenn Colella. As Captain Beverley Bass, her moving ballad “Me and the Sky” depicts the character’s experience as American Airlines’ first female captain. Astrid Van Wieren also stands out as the compassionate schoolteacher Beulah Cooper, as does Kendra Kassebaum, whose local television reporter Janice Mosher serves as a narrator for much of the production.

At a time when many critics assert that successful musical theatre has failed to emerge from Canada, Come From Away demonstrates that such a notion is erroneous. Written and composed by Canadian duo Sankoff and Hein, and first workshopped at Sheridan College’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project, the production’s creative and design teams are entirely led by Canadian artists.

Indeed, the audience is consistently reminded of the production’s Canadian personality through its Maritime score, as well as the characters’ Newfie accents, and the endless jokes about Shoppers Drug Mart and Rogers Wireless. Appropriately, its opening scene is at a crowded Tim Hortons, and its last scene is set in a Gander pub equipped with a neon Molson Canadian sign. With Come From Away headed to Broadway this winter, I wonder how this Canadian content will fair in front of American audiences.

But even if its Canadian content is reduced, Come From Away remains a quintessential Canadian story, standing tribute to the people of Gander who impacted the lives of thousands of individuals in the face of atrocity. Broadway should be honoured to host this production, just as Canadians should be honoured to have Gander a part of our national consciousness.

Come From Away opens at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City in March 2017.

 

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