The current national tour of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s COME FROM AWAY features an ensemble of twelve actors that bring the musical to blazing life; every emotional moment feels raw and real. Based upon the true story of the 7,000 diverted passengers who land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11, the musical calls upon the ensemble to embody both Gander’s residents and the stranded passengers.
With direction from Christopher Ashley and musical staging by Kelly Devine, the actors come together as a true company. Even the song list in COME FROM AWAY focuses on ensemble; there’s really only one number with a solo — the powerful feminist anthem “Me and The Sky,” beautifully delivered here by Marika Aubrey in the role of Captain Beverley Bass. While Aubrey’s a standout performer, COME FROM AWAY is so poignant because it’s a show about community; the actors all take on various roles, and thus, the show earnestly expresses that we all may have more in common than we may initially realize. This becomes particularly clear in numbers like “Prayer,” in which various ensemble members gather to pray; in the song we see Jewish, Christian, and Muslim characters all engage in prayer using traditional practices.
Though COME FROM AWAY is unapologetic in its earnestness, the show also demonstrates that such generosity towards others can be short-lived; this is particularly evident in the way in which Ali (Nick Duckart), an Egyptian man, is treated from the show. Ali becomes a microcosm of the xenophobia that arose in the wake of 9/11. COME FROM AWAY is careful not to treat the concept of prejudice as a footnote, but the overall tone of the show is emphatically feel-good.
The songs likewise communicate a sense of shared humanity. While COME FROM AWAY does not at all diminish the gravitas of 9/11, the show is a lovely expression of how something beautiful and unexpected can come out of tragedy. The raucous “Screech In” is a particularly joyful example of this, in which some of Gander’s newest residents go through the rites of passage to become Newfoundlanders. While some of the numbers don’t necessarily stand out musically, the score proves an effective vehicle for conveying all the emotions in the show by heightening each; that’s precisely what good musical theater intends to do.
The ensemble is remarkable across the board, and their vocal harmonies are spot-on, which is essential for this show. Julia Knitel is sweet as news reporter Janice, a newcomer in Gander; her take is eager but not annoying. Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson are also especially lovely in the roles of Diane and Nick, a woman from Texas and a man from England who come together unexpectedly. And I must give kudos to Chicago’s own James Earl Jones II, who I originally saw in this tour two years ago; Jones has impeccable comedic delivery.
The whimsical production design mirrors the earnestness and the scrappiness of the Gander residents. Beowulf Boritt’s sparse set design consists of a backdrop and some prominent trees. The show doesn’t rely on many props for its storytelling; rather, a set of plain wooden chairs are used to communicate being on an airplane and other settings. Toni-Leslie James’s costume designs are plainclothes, but they also make clear the quick character transitions for the actors. The band is also visible on the stage, and the members become part of the Gander townspeople; it’s a nice touch.
COME FROM AWAY has a pure spirit; it’s earnest without feeling too saccharine, and it’s touching without becoming maudlin. As the Gander residents say at the show’s beginning, welcome to the rock. It’s a pleasure to spend 100 minutes watching a musical that is genuinely moving.
The Broadway In Chicago engagement of COME FROM AWAY plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, through March 6, 2022. Tickets are $35 – $105 with premium tickets available. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy