Sankoff & Hein’s Music Blends Generosity & Good Will
by Patricia L. Morin
“Come From Away” engulfs us in an incredible true story following 9/11, when a small community in Gander, Newfoundland, opens their hearts and homes to 7,000 weary airline passengers.
After sitting in planes for over 24 hours, the disgruntled “Plane People” are exhausted, and confused. On their remote Canadian island, the inhabitants of Newfoundland come to the rescue with generosity and compassion.
The tragedy of 9/11 spread fear and tension to communities all over the world. But the people of Gander and their neighbors diffuse the stranded international passengers’ growing despair.
We are greeted by 12 townspeople on Beowulf Boritt’s magnificent set of redwood trees in front of slated boards that reflect Howell Binkley’s colorful, expressive lighting. On a circular stage of wooden chairs and tables, the Canadians sing an upbeat “On the Rock—of who knows where” that exposes their simple daily routine, soon to be interrupted.
The actors glide in and out of characters who range from lovable and warm-hearted locals to stranded and anxious visitors. The entire Company joins in singing:
We are here
On the edge of a moment
On the edge of the world where the river meets the sea
Here on the edge of the Atlantic.
We are constantly touched by their fluid emotions: from small-town humor and multi-cultural confrontations to constant, underlying worry and loneliness.
But the soul of this musical is Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s music, which continually ebbs and flows with tension and despair. They manage to disperse the travelers’ anxiety into a magical lightness of heart.
Diane, a single mother from Texas (soft-spoken Christine Joy Johnson), and her romantic interest, lonely Nick from England (sensitive James Kall) exemplify the emotional fluidity:
DIANE: I just wish we knew what was happening …
COMPANY: Somewhere in between
DIANE: Your Life
NICK: : And your work
COMPANY: When the world may be falling apart. And you think
DIANE: I’m alone
NICK: I’m alone
NICK & DIANE: And I’m so damn helpless
COMPANY: There’s nothing left to do but drink.
These versatile actors inhabit their accents, changing personalities in seconds. Director Christopher Ashley and Music Coordinator David Lai rigorously arrange this complex and challenging work into a music-driven spectacle.
Sankoff and Hein blend traditional music with rousing Newfoundland folk songs and dances! They even invoke a fun, knee-slapping citizen-initiation song.
In a touching scene, worried Hannah (delicate Danielle K. Thomas) is searching for her son, a New York City firefighter. Efficient Ganderite Beulah (sympathetic Julie Johnson) takes her to church where they sing “Prayer.” Soon the church is filled with a symphony of varied religious voices.
Among other wonderfully unique characters, the warm-hearted mayor (gregarious Kevin Carolan) uses his commanding voice to bring order to the initial chaos. Animal lover Bonnie (maternal Kristen Peace) fights to save the animals left on the airplanes.
The first U.S. woman pilot, sharp-eyed Beverly Bass (commanding Marika Aubrey), feeling grounded, unfolds her life journey. She sings the rhythmic melody “Me and the Sky,” telling of her path to the air.
The changes in the 24 characters are palpable, and I too would wonder: “Who am I if I don’t feel like the me of yesterday?”
The Newfoundlanders feel alone after the “Plane People” leave—like I felt after the music faded. It’s the feeling when your whole family comes to visit, filling the house with holiday love and delight. And then they all leave.
“Come From Away” is an out-of-this-world experience. I look forward to seeing it again and again.
“Come From Away” –book, music, & lyrics by Irene Sankoff & David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, sound design by Gareth Owen, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, at BroadwaySF, San Francisco. Info: BroadwaySF.com – to April 23, 2023.
Cast: Marika Aubrey, Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Christine Joy Johnson, Julie Johnson, James Earl Jones II, James Kall, Julia Knital, Ali Momen, Kristen Peace, Danielle K. Thomas, and Jeremy Woodward.
Banner photo: The Company of “Come From Away.” Photo: Matthew Murphy