Review: High-flying, down-to-earth ‘Come From Away’ lands Montreal premiere

Touring production of the Tony award-winning musical makes a pit stop at Place des Arts from Nov. 26 – Dec. 1

The cast of the North American tour of Come From Away (Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy)

At last “they are here”, the once-little Canadian engine that could, and that then spanned its jet wings to amass widespread acclaim, win a Tony Award on Broadway, spawn multiple international productions, and become an unexpectedly high-flying – yet still disarmingly down-to-earth – global phenomenon.

Come From Away is in Montreal for the first time – and back on home soil for a weeklong layover before continuing its multi-leg North American tour presented by Broadway Across Canada (who will also import Cats and Fiddler on the Roof later this season). It’s been a long, highly anticipated arrival for local musical theatregoers since the show first opened in Toronto in 2013, and one met with trademark Canuck generosity on the Tuesday night premiere.

A true-to-life account of events surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Come From Away tells the story of what transpired up north of the U.S. border when 38 planes were ordered to make an emergency landing in the small town of Gander on the island of Newfoundland. As part of “Operation Yellow Ribbon” to safely divert civilian airline flights from American skies, 7,000 passengers and crew were stranded in Gander for 5 days, nearly doubling the city’s population overnight. Food, clothing, and toiletry supplies were collected and donated from every local retailer; schools, churches, and public spaces were converted into makeshift sleeping quarters; Islanders opened their homes – and their hearts – to the unexpected strangers come from away.

Elsewhere was bedlam, and the compass of compassion had pointed north to “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere”.

Marika Aubrey as Captain Beverley Bass – American Airlines’ first female captain – in the showstopping solo “Me And The Sky” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Through soaring book, music and lyrics by the Canadian husband-and-wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away captures the humble heroism of a community that came together to embrace the “other”, and whose worlds are changed by unprecedented goodwill. Quilted by patches of individual stories inspired by interviews with both real-life residents of Gander and the foreigners who had been in their midst, we learn of their most intimate fears and desires. Characters ranging from a mother struggling to reach her firefighter son in New York to a young reporter on her first day on the job are then alternately narrated by a diverse cast of twelve, each of whom plays a multiplicity of roles (it seems against the spirit here to single out performances in what is the consummate ensemble piece; all are uniformly outstanding regardless and each have their shining moment in the show).

Joining the dozen actor-singers on the stage plane are eight musicians conducted by Cameron Moncur, who here deliver the Celtic-influenced, chorus-driven score with infectious energy. The rum-infused, cod-kissing number “Screech In” intermingling band and cast stands out as a high point of the night.

The live band of Come From Away (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

An uplifting chant about the capacity for human kindness, the instinct of benevolence, and the power of community, perhaps it should comes as no astonishment that the life-affirming Come From Away is currently the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history.

And yet, despite its remarkable critical and box office success, the production remain grounded in modesty and authenticity, making extraordinary of the ordinary. The performance may be stylized and theatrical in all its choreographed staging (creative credits to Kelly Devine), but it hasn’t been stripped of naturalism in acting. If anything, the synchronicity of subtle breath and simple movement point all the more poignantly to themes of interconnectedness. The warm rustic set (by Beowulf Boritt) is mostly barren, save for wooden chairs and a revolving turntable; an allusion, perchance, to the full circle effect of altruism. Howell Binkley’s exquisite lighting is the most spectacle-like of the design elements, but even then, it is at the service of the storytelling. It is humanity that ultimately drives this commercial machine home.

Might it also be added that it’s more than just a plaid flannel-donning, heartwarming hootenanny as Director Christopher Ashley (who here received the 2017 Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical) aptly pilots the piece to land its drama as well as its comedy. Beautifully understated, the art captivates without overly appealing to pathos.

Come From Away is a love letter to a nation and one that, as an immigrant, reminds me of my reasons for choosing the True North, strong and free. In current times of divide, its messages of inclusivity and of building bridges instead of walls ring alarmingly resonant.

Book your one-way ticket (you will be moved and changed) before it departs December 1st.

evenko and Broadway Across Canada present the North American touring production of Come From Away
November 26 – December 1, 2019
Place des Arts – Salle Wilfrid Pelletier
175 Sainte-Catherine Street West, Montreal, QC H2X 1Z8
Run time: 1h40 (no intermission)
514 842-2112 |

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