Magnificent. Unquestionably, one of the most memorable shows you will ever see. Come From Away has retained all the humour, warmth and poignancy from when it first exploded onto the stage at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in the middle of 2019. It has lost none of its ability to captivate an audience and hold each member spellbound. You laugh, you applaud, your eyes well up.
The combination of marvellous writing, exceptional direction, superb choreography, simple staging, a harmonious 12-strong cast and eight talented musicians works a treat. You dare not look away for even a moment in a 100-minute production without interval that doesn’t let up.
Inspired by fact, what a special, feel-good show it is – one that restores your faith in humanity in the wake of evil the likes of which the world had previously not known. Moving, uplifting, funny, energetic and melodic, I defy anyone not to be in raptures about Come From Away … because it really is that good. Who would have thought anyone could turn such a dastardly deed on its head and create something so positive and theatrical?
The story is set in Newfoundland, an island off the far northeast coast of Canada, after the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks. As a result, for the first time, American airspace was shut down and 38 commercial aircraft carrying 6,579 passengers from 92 countries were diverted to this sleepy hollow, population 9,651 (and four traffic lights).
Ill-equipped to handle the deluge, led by the Mayor of Gander, the citizens of Newfoundland rallied and found a way through. When they landed, those on board the planes had no idea what had just happened. When they found out, like the rest of the world, they were deeply shocked and just wanted to get home … but they couldn’t for five long days.
In the meantime, the townsfolk went way beyond the call of duty to lend a helping hand and by so doing entrenched Newfoundland into the psyche of all who inadvertently found their way there. Amongst the chaos, Newfoundland became an unexpected safe haven, which the weary travellers took to heart.
Sure, there was tension, distrust, fear and heartbreak, but there was also overwhelming good will from the locals, which won out. In the story, love is lost and found and new life-long friendships forged … all in the space of just a few days that changed those involved.
I should mention that the musical’s unusual title comes from the fact that Newfoundlanders refer to those not born on the island as “Come From Aways”. To create the show, Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein (who are responsible for the music, lyrics and book) went straight to the source. They travelled to Newfoundland for the 10th anniversary of that fateful week. Further, they collected hundreds of hours of interviews that they distilled into the completed work.
Come From Away debuted on Broadway in February 2017. It went on to claim the Tony Award for Best Direction. Nine of the 12 performers in this Melbourne season are the same as those who were involved first time around. Another was in a COVID-19 red zone in Sydney and couldn’t attend rehearsals in time for shows the week I saw it.
Each of the cast shares the limelight, assuming multiple characters. All are terrific, with Zoe Gertz as the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft and Kolby Kindle as a bloke who evolves as a result of his experience, foremost among them.
The most basic of sets (Beowulf Boritt is responsible for scenic design), with revolving central stage and trees on either side, serves the storyline well. The songs, which number 15, are rousing and poignant. So much happens and the words and lyrics tell a tale of anguish and inspiration. Directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Kelly Devine, Come From Away moves along at pace and leaves you feeling buoyant.
I could not recommend Come From Away any more highly. It is a remarkable piece of work, brilliantly conceived and executed. If you saw it once, it is well worth a second look. If you have not yet seen it, do not miss it. It is playing at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne until 14th March, before moving to the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, where it will open on 3rd June, 2021.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.