A celebration of love and life, Come from Away is a winning musical about a small town’s community spirit in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, says Monique Grbec
Nearly 18 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks on North American airspace, Come From Away at the Comedy Theatre offers a musical extravaganza about the town of Gander on the island of Newfoundland. It tells the story of how its residents banded together to host 6579 grounded airline passengers (nearly doubling their population) for four days in the aftermath of 9/11.
Created by the doyens of quirky commercial theatre, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this award-winning show is the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history. Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, the mostly Australian cast of 12 – including stand-out performances from Zoe Gertz as Beverley and Nicholas Brown as Ali – seamlessly characterises some of the guests from the 193 nations that found themselves in Gander.
Choreographed into swarming ensembles of song and dance, or caught in poignant spotlights that highlight the various experiences of individuals, the cast embraces Kelly Devine’s riveting musical staging. The careful individualisation of each character amid the ensemble gives this rock musical its soaring wings.
The set consists of a log-wall backdrop with two abstract forests of tree trunks that reach beyond the flies on each side. In contrast to the brown tones, the opening rock anthem “Welcome to the Rock”, sung by Gander’s mayor, police constable, teacher, union boss and other locals, describes their “on the edge of the world” town as a harsh, isolated landscape of harsh winters and wild waters.
During the domesticity of an average Gander morning, news about the terrorist attacks and the diversion of 38 planes to their airport sparks a toe-tapping community spirit in the townspeople. Leaping into action, they prepare their homes and public buildings; they make sandwiches and stock up from their local store Shoppers, which donates all the goods: toothbrushes, floss, mouthwash, deodorant, baby food, diapers, toilet paper, tampons, medicine, underwear and more.
With US airspace closed and 6579 refugees (and 19 animals in cargo) stranded on the tarmac, the passengers are beside themselves with misinformation and fear. Their only respite is complimentary booze, which prompts some singing and bra flashing. Some passengers have been in transit for over 28 hours, isolated from the news, and they fall silent to listen to President Bush’s speech reacting to the terrorist attacks.
Released from the planes, the passengers form queues at the airport pay phones and are herded into buses that take them to Gander and surrounding towns. Devine’s masterful choreography brings scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s minimal set of 12 seats to life as the passengers brace and bump through darkness and trees.
The story is peppered with incidents that illustrate the complexities that the people of Gander were dealing with. For example, at 3am on September 12, a bus designated to take African people to a Salvation Army camp falls silent. Because of the language barrier, the passengers don’t know what is happening: when they arrive at the camp to see volunteers dressed in Salvation Army uniforms, they believe they are soldiers and refuse to get off the bus. Fortunately, the driver sees a woman clutching a Bible and is able to find a verse number that translates the message of safety ahead.
Backed by a live band directed by Luke Hunter, the lyrics are punctuated by lists, statistics and numbers that drive the action on stage. These help to ground the audience in a confusing situation: we learn there are two police, one ice hockey ring, 38 planes, the first day of news, 90 “Make A Wish” kids, six trays of sandwiches, 28 hours in a plane, 19 animals in cargo, TVs are going 24/7; four hours later there’s 75 phones, with six cardiologist cleaning toilets…
Religion is touched on during “Prayer”, in which the voices of Catholics, Hindus, Jews and a sole Muslim man, Ali, unite. There are epiphanies for the locals too: we learn of Eddie arriving in Gander as a young Jewish refugee from Poland. Told to never reveal he was Jewish, even to his wife, he finds a Rabbi among the passengers to tell his story and accept a Kippah. Understanding the collective racism experienced by Eddie’s family, Ali sees the fear in people’s eyes when he prays: nothing can save him from the unbridled ignorance of passengers, who react with terror and aggression when they hear him sending messages of peace and love in Arabic over the phone.
Even though Ali, a head chef for an international chain of hotels, uses his skills to help the locals feed the refugees, he suffers a humiliating strip search when it’s time to get back on the planes for home. To make it worse, the search is overseen by a woman, Captain Beverley, who tells us it was the most thorough strip search she has ever witnessed.
Before this incident, Beverley’s place in history as America’s first female Captain is honoured. Gertz breathes brilliance into her inspirational story of attaining a childhood dream of becoming a pilot: from working for a mortician and carrying corpses across the country for $5 an hour, to company charter pilot. Finally in 1986 – when the generation of men who said that girls shouldn’t be in the cockpit finally retired – she makes it as a pilot for American Airlines, the company with the “prettiest planes”. Surely every woman in the audience felt stronger and sat taller.
There’s plenty of lightness throughout this show: a Virgin Atlantic pilot (Kolby Kindle) who slinks onto stage seducing the local women; Kevin and Kevin (Nicholas Brown and Douglas Hansell), who hide their relationship behind a business partnership, and are delighted to be outed and discover that pretty much everyone in the pub has a LGTBQIA relative.
A blossoming romance between Nick (Nathan Carter) and Diane (Katrina Retallick) is another delightful storylines woven through the show. During one of the social events organised by the people of Gander, they finally kiss; by the tenth year anniversary, Nick has moved to Texas and they’re married.
Come From Away is a celebration of love and life. The audience rose for a resounding ovation. We clapped more. And more.
Then I wondered about Aboriginals who thrived before Gander was Gander, and where they fit in the story. Where was their drumming and throat-singing during the rousing song that welcomed these strangers? When I researched, I learned that most of Gander streets were named after famous pilots, and remembered how North American bombs were regularly gives Native American names…
I wondered how First Nations people felt when the people of Gander were celebrated after just four days of care. I wondered how the people immortalised in Come From Away, who sang about their heavenly connection to Gander, would feel if those who come from away took over their homes and their lands. I wondered why the custodians of their lands were ignored.
I thought about the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Big World Up Close series. Deer Woman, coming up next month, perhaps explains how the most successful Canadian musical of all time can ignore its Indigenous population: it explores the historical racism and sexism of the colonialist policies that led to the genocide of Indigenous women and girls. Maybe it’s time to feel Canada’s shame, and put some of the “pay it forward” goodwill given to strangers to the people who need it most.
Come From Away, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, director Christopher Ashley. Musical Staging, Kelly Devine, Music Supervision and Arrangements, Ian Eisendrath. Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt and costume design Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design Howell Binkley, sound design Gareth Owen. Hair Design David Brian Brown. Comedy Theatre Melbourne. Until 10 November 2019. Bookings
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