We spent most of the Christmas period playing that touch-and-go game of will the shows go ahead or will Covid get the better of us all. Amazingly, all three shows that we had booked for between Christmas and New Year managed to stay sufficiently Corona-free and they were all thoroughly pleasing theatre trips, so praise be to the Vaccine and Booster!
First of those three was a show that I had high hopes of seeing early in 2020 but it wasn’t to be because of you know what. The first major work written and composed by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away first opened in various locations in the US in 2015, before arriving in Toronto in 2016, Broadway in 2017 and the West End in 2019. It’s the longest running Canadian musical on Broadway, and has won many awards, including the Olivier for Best Musical in 2019. Does it live up to its hype? Oh boy, yes it sure does.
Everyone knows the tragic story of the hijacked planes that were flown into the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. But I’d never thought about – and I bet you hadn’t either – the 38 flights that were headed for New York at the same time and which had to be diverted to the small town of Gander, in Newfoundland. Approximately 7,000 passengers and crew, expecting to land in the Big Apple, suddenly found themselves in the back of beyond, nearly doubling the population of that tiny town. What a logistical nightmare that must have been – how to feed, house, and clothe these people; how to take care of their medical needs, how to get them in contact with friends and family (no one had mobiles in those days), and how eventually to get them back to where they needed to be, once the danger had passed. And who would give that help? The kind, generous and welcoming inhabitants of Gander, that’s who.
If ever we lived at a time where we need a good news story it’s now, and Come From Away overflows with kindness and compassion. It boasts a brilliant eight-strong band who deliver the catchy, Irish-folky score with huge enthusiasm and infectious rhythm. Beowulf Borritt’s simple but terrifically evocative set, combined with Howell Binkley’s subtle lighting design, provides a sparse, rustic backdrop to all the scenes, from a super-friendly Tim Horton’s to a chaotic airport.
The cast of twelve play dozens of characters, the majority based on real-life people and their genuine experiences at the time. There’s never been a time when theatre has needed and valued its amazing swings and covers as much as now, and for our performance we had three understudies. But the whole cast worked together superbly as a true ensemble, seamlessly moving in and out of different characters with as little as a simple walk around the stage, or change of a hat. And although the show emphasises the good things, it’s not to say that there aren’t of course many crises, heartaches, petty antagonisms and reconciliations along the way; but everything reaches a positive conclusion. So many mini-dramas are played out in this show, like the arguments between James Doherty’s Mayor Claude and Mark Dugdale’s union leader Garth, who decides to suspend the bus drivers’ strike to help with the emergency; or the relationship deterioration between the two Kevins – Mark Dugdale again and superb standby Ricardo Castro, who is also excellent as the initially distrusted super-chef Ali.
Jenna Boyd is brilliant as teacher Beulah, but also hilarious as the terrified/drunk scouser passenger who breaks into Celine Dion at a moment’s notice. She has very touching scenes with Gemma Knight Jones’ Hannah as both characters share the concern about having a son as a firefighter. I loved Alice Fearn’s smart pilot Beverley, and Harry Morrison’s constantly enthusiastic cop Oz. The heart-warming romance that kindles between Kate Graham’s Diane and standby Stuart Hickey’s Nick is beautifully observed and gets more and more charming as it progresses. Another standby, Jennifer Tierney, is excellent as the kind-hearted Bonnie, in charge of the SPCA, and who treats the 19 animals who suddenly arrive in Gander with the same respect as everyone else treats the humans – especially her beloved Bonobos! There are also great performances by Emma Salvo as newbie reporter Janice and Sam Oladeinde as the partial to Irish Whiskey Bob. The music is uplifting and emotional, and the band get their own sensational curtain call at the end with a fantastic demonstration of their individual musical skills in a finale hoe-down.
Everything about this show is a delight. A tonic for the heart and a balm for the mind. No wonder it’s been so successful. Absolutely superb from start to finish.
Production photos by Craig Sugden