Come From Away Review
By Jake Freeman
There are a select few dates in history that all of us will remember on where we were and what we were doing on that day. Now approaching its 21st anniversary, 11 September 2001 – the day that terrorists hijacked passenger planes and crashing them into The World Trade Center in New York City and into The Pentagon. Nearly 3000 lives were lost on that dreadful day. It was a day of great sadness, confusion, hopelessness and despair. It was at that moment the world as we knew it, changed forever. It was a day that we lost our innocence and a new mood emerged. The state of optimism for the new century now felt bleak.
However, all was not lost. Immediately following the attacks, 38 passenger planes with nearly 7000 passengers were ordered to land in the small Newfoundland town of Gander as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon, a plan to ensure that potentially destructive air traffic be removed from United States airspace. It was a task of the locals of Gander to look after, feed and house the thousands of stranded passengers and crew members. It was a true testament of the human spirit that day, a day where lifelong bonds and friendships were formed that still continue to this very day. Now returning to Melbourne for a limited season, Come From Away, tells this inspiring real-life story, where even in the darkest of times, human kindness and compassion triumphs over evil and that there is always hope.
Come From Away the Musical was developed by writer/composer and husband and wife David Hein and Irene Sankoff after being approached by Michael Rubinoff, a Toronto based theatre producer and teacher who conceived the idea. To help with their research, David and Irene visited Gander and met and interviewed some of the locals and returning passengers who had reunited for the tenth anniversary of the attacks. Some of the people they met and stories and accounts they were told were directly included in the musical. Like many other musicals, David and Irene workshopped their story at several theatre program events in Canada and held tryout shows in the US before making its Broadway debut in March 2017.
Come From Away has had enormous success, both critically and financially. It has had record-breaking runs at multiple theatres, with even some venues adding on standing room only locations.
A live recording of the production was released on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the attacks and a feature film adaptation of the musical is in the works with Sankoff and Hein writing the screenplay. Along with Hamilton and The Book of Mormons, it is one of the most critically acclaimed shows from the 2010s and one of the longest running on Broadway (over 1000 performances) since its debut.
Come From Away made its debut in Melbourne at The Comedy Theatre in July 2019. It became the most successful production in the Theatre’s 91-year history, before it was forced to close early due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an enormous turnout of last week’s opening night of the show. Having missed out on seeing it back in 2020 due to the pandemic lockdowns, I was pleased to get the chance to see it for the first time and can understand why people are raving about it. In just 90 minutes it was able to deliver on a truly remarkable story that needs greater recognition of the heroes of that day. There were various times where you really felt emotionally part of the show, especially if you were of age of the attacks.
Come From Away begins with the small community of Gander on the morning of 11 September 2001 where orders have been made to redirect 38 passenger planes there in the aftermath of the attacks. Some 7000 people (equivalent to 66 % of the local population at the time) from both the U.S and around the world are forced to stay in the Gander area for up to six days until airspace was reopened following the attacks. Police, teachers, mayors and everyday residents, welcomed the ‘come from aways’ people into their lives and homes and provided hope and shelter for them.
Originally the passengers and crew were not told of why they were redirected and to Gander and only learn the true reason after landing. During their stay, the townsfolk went out of their way to help them in any and every way they can and over the time, the “plane people” begin to bond with the quirky townsfolk and each other. The “islanders” in Gander and the surrounding towns open up their homes to the regardless of their guests’ race, nationality or sexual orientation. The story concludes on 11 September 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks where the “come from away” passengers and crew return and reunite in Gander, to acknowledge and celebrate the friendships and strong connections they had formed.
The cast for Come From Away were from start to finish, simply brilliant. It was difficult to spot any flaws in their performance, especially given the entire cast also play multiple characters with different accents and costumes and being able to make the seaamless transition within seconds.
A few worthwhile mentions of the cast include Zoe Gertz as Beverly, the bubbly American Airlines captain, and in other roles. Zoe, talent really showed in particular in the “Me and the Sky” number that got one of the biggest applauses from the audience on opening night.
Others that stood out was Manon Gunderson-Briggs as Janice, the news reporter on her first day at work on that unforgettable day.Douglas Hansell and Joseph Naim were both hilarious as the two Kevin’s, a gay couple from Brooklyn. Sarah Nairne as Hannah, who tries to find out whether her firefighter son had died in the World Trade Center. Kat Harrison also brought a strong stage presence as Bonnie, the veterinarian and being one of the narrators of the show, telling the story through song and dance on a rotating stage floor cantered in the middle that assisted with blocking.
Complimenting the cast was the equally talented live band who play the music throughout the show so flawlessly with my favourite song being “Welcome to The Rock” in the opening scene as well as “38 planes” and “Somewhere in The Middle of Nowhere”.
A truly profound moment was at the end of the show when the cast brought on stage Janice Goudie (the real-life reporter) and Bonnie Harris (the real-life animal handler), receiving an emotional and heartfelt standing ovation from audience. Seeing the real-life Janice and Bonnie with the actors that played them was reminiscent of the finale of Schindler’s List where the actors line up with their real-life counterparts, driving home the point that the characters in the musical are real people rather than just invented figures. That night’s audience can feel a great sense of satisfaction in seeing the actual people who were there and answered the call to those in need during the darkest of times.
Come From Away is truly a must-see show. For one, it is a breath of fresh air from the heavy rotation of returning classical musicals like Cats and Phantom of Opera. It is an original, new production.
Most importantly, it is an emotional but uplifting, feel good show. It would have been a difficult task to do a story that also contains humour on a sensitive subject matter such as 9/11, but the writing duo of David and Irene really know how to handle this and be respectful.
There are times during the performance, you will laugh along and cry along, but, Come From Away reminds us of when in the worst moments we can come together as one. As Claude the mayor, played by David Silvestri, says, “Tonight we honour what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.”
Come From Away is playing until 16 October at The Comedy Theatre in Melbourne at 240 Exhibition Street, opposite Her Majesty’s Theatre. From there it plays in Sydney from 5 November 2022 then off to Canberra in June 2023.
The show is one act and goes for 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission. It contains some adult themes and coarse language and is suitable for mature audiences.
To buy tickets to the show, go to – www.comefromaway.com.au