Set in the days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Come From Away tells the true-to-life account of how, following the shutdown of US airspace, some 6,000 passengers in the air were diverted to Gander, a remote town in Newfoundland (population: 10,000). With little more than a large airport in disrepair, an ice hockey rink, and a three-day bus ride to the nearest metropolis, 38 planes and the thousands of people within them were stranded. Stuck struggling to piece together and make sense of an act of hate, they found themselves in a place far from home in need of food and shelter for the days following.
So far, so not exactly musical material. However instead of days of uncertainty, they were greeted with open arms by a cheery townspeople - and the blistering 90 minutes within the Phoenix Theatre tells their tale. Come From Away may forever be known as the ‘9/11 musical’, but its real story is about the heart of Gander and its people. This is a play that celebrates the good in humanity as well as the rural Canadian way of life. The second-natured call to arms of a community that welcomed an influx of worried people from across the globe with a gleeful hello and a few thousand hot meals. It’s a heartwarming exercise in sheer joy.
At the core of this beating heart is a score that, eschewing the orchestral pit often seen in the West End, launches with a territorial folk-ish thud and never lets up. The eight-piece band on stage do more to transport you to that sleepy isle than anything else, pulling penny whistles, accordions, fiddles and the traditional bodhrán out of their melodic box of tricks at a moment’s notice. This is a soundtrack that is in danger of becoming your new obsession, bellowing out the glory-filled tunes in your newly-acquired Newfoundland accent.
With the need to portray both the local population and the ensuing inhabitants, on paper this would account for a cast size rivalling a Hollywood movie. Instead there’s an impeccable ensemble of a dozen, none taking top billing over the others, assuming the mantle of a cavalcade of characters both close to Canadian home and from all corners.
With a thundering pace and the need for every one of them to be on stage for pretty much the entirety, the cast switch between characters and scenes with often nothing but an on-stage jacket change. This in the hands of any other production might have led to confusion given its non-stop stride, but with decades of collective on-stage experience that spans some of theatre’s finest, all it takes is a masterful turn of physicality and perhaps a new hat for the temporary transformation to be complete.
The musical’s journey to the West End is fitting for its of small town thrust into the limelight story. Born in Canada to husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, its initial run took place in an Ontario community college. Word-of-mouth and a slew of five-star reviews saw it bounce from city to city across North America, sweeping up awards in the process. Hitting the bright lights of Broadway in 2017 (breaking records and picking up a Tony in the process), it continues to beam happiness on packed out crowds on the other side of the Atlantic to this day. At a time when this is needed more than ever, we anticipate it will be doing the same on these shores for some time to come.
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