The ensemble cast of "Come From Away." Photo by Matthew Murphy
As much as I loved “Come From Away” when it premiered seven years ago at La Jolla Playhouse, I wondered, when it opened two years later on Broadway, if the masses would embrace the musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Heartwarming and often joyous as it is, “Come from Away” is also a reminder of the nightmare that was 9/11. Would “America” take to it on the Great White Way?
It did, in a big way. “Come from Away” would become the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history and would earn director Christopher Ashley (the Playhouse’s artistic director) a Tony Award in 2017.
A national touring production of “Come from Away” was to have made a stop at the Civic Theatre downtown in a Broadway San Diego presentation in 2020 … but enough said about 2020 the better. Happily, “Come from Away” has returned at last, in a BSD engagement that runs through Sunday.
If you saw “Come From Away” in La Jolla or on Broadway, see it again. If you’ve never seen “Come From Away,” your time is now.
It is a play with music (more than a pure, full-on musical) about “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” in which 38 airliners were forced by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to land in little Gander, Newfoundland, population around 10,000. Some 6,500 people, both passengers and flight crew members, were taken care of and taken to the hearts of the generous people of Gander.
Over the course of just one act we get to know both Newfoundlanders and the “come from aways” in their care. The mayor. The constable. The airline pilot. The mother whose son is a missing New York City firefighter. The woman and man from different continents thrown together who fall in love. These aren’t “types.” They are real people dramatized from the true story of “Operation Yellow Ribbon.” (You can see many of them in a superb NBC documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXbxoy4Mges)
Revisiting “Come From Away” reminded me of all the things I admired about it at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015, like the simplicity of a set composed basically of chairs and the ingenuity of with only these chairs (or nothing at all) taking us inside an airliner or an airport terminal or a local school gymnasium converted into a “hotel.” Here too is a show with many moving parts that never loses its way. Its characters are defined just enough to invest us in their individual desires and dilemmas. The band onstage recreates the folk music of Newfoundland, enlivening but not overwhelming the proceedings.
Most of “Come From Away’s” songs are there to chronicle those days and nights in Gander and to move the story forward, from the opening “Welcome to the Rock” to the pub-party tune “Screech In” to the more thoughtful “Stop the World” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” The closing “Something’s Missing” is a 9/11 elegy that has lost none of its potency in the passing years.
This touring production cast is exceptional. As prescribed, all actors play multiple roles. Marika Aubrey, who plays American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, and Kevin Carolan, portraying Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, lead the way, with touching performances too from Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson as Diane and Nick, the pair from Dallas and London respectively who find love in Newfoundland.
Guaranteed there will be moments when the songs or stories of “Come From Away” will catch in your throat, whether it’s the tender gesture of a neighbor toward a stranger or the refusal of an animal shelter manager to abandon the frightened pets stranded aboard the empty jetliners.
“Come From Away” may be the closest you’ll ever get to Gander. You’ll feel like you’ve been there, and for an hour and 40 minutes you’ll feel like an honorary Newfoundlander.
Thank you again to our friends north of the border.
"Come From Away" runs through May 22 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.