Encore Michigan

‘Come From Away’ at Wharton reminds us to welcome the stranger

Review September 13, 2019 Bridgette Redman

LANSING, Mich.–When you hear that a story is about 9/11, you expect that it is going to be dark. That it will be, like the events of that day, tragic.

Come From Away is anything but that. And for Wharton audiences who get to experience it the week of the 9/11 anniversary, it is an experience that is authentically emotional and intense, but also uplifting and filled with hope.

When U.S. airspace closed after the terrorist attacks that hit New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., planes were diverted to other landing spaces. Gander, Newfoundland had a huge airport left over from the days when planes couldn’t make a trans-Atlantic flight without stopping to refuel. Because of that, 38 planes were diverted to their airport.

This meant that 7,000 people were set down without warning in a town of only 9,000 that turned out to feed, clothe, shelter and comfort the travelers from all over the world.

There had been books and documentaries about the event, but when Irene Sankoff and David Hein turned the story into a musical, it found the perfect vehicle for celebrating what happened in that small town in and in the lives of everyone affected.

If you go? Take tissues but also be prepared to laugh often. The play covers the range of human emotion, which is why people so often must break out in song–there is no other way to contain so much feeling.

There are 12 actors in the show, and they play hundreds of people. That may sound confusing, but it never is. The brilliant directing by Christopher Ashley creates a complex choreography that is a gift to the audience, imbuing each character change with some small cue that let’s them always know what is going on.

There is another thing of brilliance in this show, especially for anyone old enough to remember the events of 18 years ago and what they experienced the day of and in the days that followed. Come From Away never stops the narrative to explain what happened. They mostly assume that the audience knows. There are certain moments where the directorial choices call upon the collective audience memory. When the airplane passengers first are told what happened, when they stand in front of the televisions and see the events, we don’t hear a broadcast. Instead, the audience experiences it with them, reliving those horrible moments of watching planes crash into the World Trade Center, of seeing people leap from the building (or be blasted out of it). We again cringe and we again are filled with the shock and horror.

But horror is not what Come From Away is about, even though it must touch upon it. Instead, it is what people do to help each other amid a horrible crisis. There is an incredible outpouring of love and radical hospitality. No one counted the cost or said “I can’t afford to help.” They just gave everything they had. The stores emptied their shelves and thousands of Canadians opened their hopes to their American refugees.

Usually in a Broadway show, the cast is made up of glamorous people. The beauty of the performers in this show came from their realism and authenticity: diverse ages, sizes, appearances, races. They looked like real people and this was crucial to the story they told, because Come From Away excels in making you believe that these are people we know–that they could even be you.

Come From Away is a deeply participatory show even though it never asks audience members to sing along or join them physically on stage. Rather, we participate emotionally and in the journey of memory. We participate in the hope and in the belief that there are good people in the world and that most people are good people.

Nothing about this show falls under the heading of spectacle, which might be why there is no choreographer credited, though Kelly Devine is listed as being responsible for “musical staging.” The dancing was made to look like the sort of dancing that people without any sort of artistic training could do (mind, “made to look” is an important distinction, I doubt any untrained dancer could actually do what they do). There aren’t big dance numbers or ballets, rather there is highly choreographed movement and sometimes the sort of dancing that would be done in a bar. It has a feel of down-home realism, yet always provided emotional shading to the music being sung.

The music soars—whether it is setting the stage to describe Islanders or a mother’s anguish at not being able to search for her son in New York or a pilot’s story of being in the sky or the prayers of people from many different religious backgrounds—each song brings in its own intensity and feeling of underlying hope amid the fear.

To go through all 12 actors and the many roles they play would spoil too much of the experience, but all of the performers deserve credit for what they bring to the story.

The culture shock James Earl Jones II’s plane character undergoes is a pure delight and he evokes plenty of laughter as he travels from being suspected as gay to utterly open. The chemistry between Danielle K. Thomas and Julie Johnson as two mothers of firefighters is beautifully memorable. Andrew Samonsky’s Kevin T. is genuine and expresses well the mixed feelings of wanting to reach out while not wanting to alienate his partner who is in shock and wants isolation in which to mourn. Marika Aubrey shines as the American Airlines pilot who is intent about getting the planes in the air again.

The musicians spend the entire time on stage, mostly relegated to the background, but occasionally coming out with their fiddles, accordions, and an “ugly stick” to make music center stage. There is a perfect balance that never overwhelms the singers or the message of the story being told.

Come From Away is filled with thousands of individual stories captured in composites, in a string of characters whose lives are changed forever by the five days in Gander. They are blended beautifully together to tell one overarching story of hope—of people of all backgrounds, of all religions, from all around the world who manage to connect despite their differences and to lift each other up.

Now, 18 years later, Come From Away reminds Wharton Center audiences in East Lansing that there are still people out there who will put aside their fear, welcome the stranger and do whatever needs to be done to help those who are in need. And it offers a quiet challenge when the people of Gander repeatedly respond to thanks with, “You would have done the same.”

Let’s hope so.

Week of 9/28/2020

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