Come from Away opened in Brisbane this week to rapturous standing ovations. This unique production tells the true stories of the people of Gander, Newfoundland (CA) and some of the passengers of the 38 planes that were diverted there during the day of September 11, 2001. As the small town’s population more than doubled with the influx of stranded international passengers, the musical showcases the highs and lows of this extraordinary turn of events through snippets of conversation, anecdotes and pared-back reenactments of pivotal moments.
The story is told roughly chronologically, from the mundane early hours of September 11, the shock felt when news of the terror attack was first broadcast, planning for the arrival of thousands of guests and the following days when the world was seemingly being turned upside down.
Come From Away weaves in and out of various characters’ stories; alternating from sombre to uplifting. There are many laughs to be found in the script, lyrics and characterisations and the audience can’t help but feel awe for the way the small town embraces the challenge and their 7,000 visitors (and 19 animals). The show is full of heart and despite the serious international event on which it is based, it chooses to celebrate the wonderful stories that emerged from the tragedy. Throughout the show, it’s powerful to remind yourself that these stories are real and that the actors are portraying people who are still alive, and from time to time attend a performance (check the US production’s Instagram for examples).
A musical highlight is the ever present band, tucked discreetly towards the back of the set, playing a folk-style score true to Newfoundlander life. They are a constant companion through full-company songs, emotional solos and also add atmosphere to the spoken scenes. They are also welcomed to the front of the stage during “Screech In”, a rollicking number highlighting the adventurous spirit of the people of Gander and their unexpected guests.
The 12-person cast each play multiple characters; most with a prominent lead from either Gander townsfolk or passenger. Memorable performances come from Zoe Gertz as Beverly Bass, first female pilot for American Airlines; Sarah Morrison as Janice, a TV reporter starting a new job with the local station in Gander; and Sharriese Hamilton as Hannah, a woman returning home from a holiday in Paris whose son is a New York firefighter. Gene Weygandt as the Mayor of Gander (among others) and Kolby Kindle as cynical New Yorker Bob are also hilarious and provide many comedic moments.
The cleverly simple set design comprises just tables and chairs, which are transformed by the cast into airplanes, cafes, pubs, town halls and outdoor locations without the need to dim the lights. It all just magically happens on stage before you’ve had time to register that there’s been a location change.
Come From Away has already earned accolades and fans worldwide, and after the 2019 Melbourne season was cut short due to COVID, it’s the perfect production to welcome audiences back to the theatre after a tumultuous year.