Wednesday, July 31, 2019

When Love Comes To/From Town: 'Come From Away' Wonderfully Sings the Praises the Giving One's Best at the Worst of Times -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Come From Away
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru August 18

The awful events of Sept. 11, 2001 probably seem like the last thing anyone should ever write a Broadway musical about.

But befitting a show in part about changing perceptions via kindness and compassion, Come From Away slyly deals with that devastating day in an artful, humanistic, spirit-uplifting way.

Written and composed by Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical isn't directly about the terrorist attacks, the heroic first responders, the resiliency of New Yorkers and Americans, etc., though that's certainly woven in adroitly.

Rather, it chronicles what happened when--amid the stoppage of air traffic--38 planes full of people from just about everywhere landed in Gander, Newfoundland.

Circa 2001, Gander was home to about 9,000 people and what was once the world's busiest airport. 

Before jets became capable of reaching transatlantic destinations without refueling, Gander International Airport (YQX) was the foremost aviation pit stop location, but had become rather sleepy by 2001.

With many global flights in the air well before hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, passenger jets needed to land somewhere after U.S. airspace was closed.

I imagine there were other locales where something similar happened to a lesser extent, but Gander nearly doubled in size literally overnight, as the planes brought about 7,000 people.

Initially there was understandable confusion about all the aircraft arriving, and for quite some time passengers weren’t allowed to disembark.

As would be expected, those unexpectedly winding up in Gander—without knowing the news of the day—were confused, tired, fearful, hungry, wary, etc.

Many, coming from Africa, Asia and elsewhere, didn’t speak English, let alone clearly understand the Newfoundland dialect. And there was some ugly anger targeted at those who prayed in Arabic tongues.

Yet rather miraculously—within Come From Away, but seemingly quite so in real-life—the residents of Gander and nearby environs not only welcomed everyone, they truly cared for them.

Given how polarized we seem to be in the Trump era, there will conceivably be folks who find Come From Away far too liberal, progressive, open-hearted, empathetic, tolerant, loving, etc.

So be it, but I think it represents the way life should be. With kindness and mutual respect and newfound friendships—transcending race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, language, etc., etc.— coming in the shadow one of the worst events in world history.

But what makes Come From Away fantastic is that it’s far from just a Pollyannish, feel good show.

Sankoff and Hein have written a cool collection of songs that help tell the story while speaking to the great sorrows as well as camaraderie in the midst of anxiety.

“Welcome to the Rock,” “Wherever We Are,” “On the Edge,” “Heave Away,” “Screech In,” “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” and the poignant “Something’s Missing” are all terrific group numbers that mostly rock, but offer some nice variety.

Before I get further into details, let me note that I am specifically reviewing the Chicago stop of Come From Away’s first national tour, following the show’s Broadway opening in March 2017.

Prior to reaching Broadway--where it continues to run rather successfully--the show had played a few cities, including Washington, DC, where I saw the first preview in September 2016.

Through a promotion by TodayTix, I was able to get a free ticket, and the experience was abetted by the venue: the Ford's Theatre, where President Lincoln was shot and killed in 1865 but which remains an operating theater (as well as a tourist attraction).

A mini-review is just a minor part of this travelogue of a multi-city East Coast city I took, but--as now--I awarded @@@@@ on my 5@ scale and called Come From Away "really phenomenal."

Certainly there was some great talent in that cast, which largely went to Broadway--including Jenn Colella, who would be Tony-nominated, and Joel Hatch, who I recalled fondly from The Adding Machine at Next Theatre in Evanston, IL--but this is truly a musical where everyone in the cast is integral, especially as all rotate through multiple roles.

So although from my balcony seat at Chicago's Cadillac Palace I had some trouble seeing around a sizable patron in front of me, disregarding the unique appeal of the Ford's Theatre I would say the touring version of Come From Away is in no way lesser.

Becky Gulsvig, who I've liked in Legally Blonde and Beautiful, does a fine job in Colella's role, principally playing an airline pilot named Beverley. She belts out "Me and the Sky" really well.

Everyone is notably good, including Kevin Carolan, Nick Duckart and Emily Walton.

Having often enjoyed James Earl Jones II--who is not the son of but somehow related to his famed namesake--on Chicago area stages, it was delightful on multiple levels to note his inclusion in this touring cast.

And while everyone runs through multiple roles, as both passengers and Gander locals--it's not nearly as confusing as that may sound, thanks clearly to director Christopher Ashley--the friendship among Julie Johnson's Beulah and Danielle K. Thomas' Hannah, whose son is a Manhattan fireman, is definitely a highlight.

So you have an oddly heartwarming true story, well-told and staged, accompanied by some superb songs and excellent performances, all clocking in well under an intermission-less 2 hours.

By all means, Come From Away to see this striking musical. 

It's that special.

Particularly if you agree that much can be solved simply by people being nice to one another.

(Though in addition to touring and playing Broadway, it can also be found in Toronto, London (UK) and elsewhere.)

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