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Come From Away: Heart-warming musical lives up to the hype

The cast of Come From Away perform a scene from the musical, which is set around the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The play may be a celebration of humanity, but it is not starry-eyed in it presentation.

Matthew Murphy

4 out of 4 stars

Come From Away
Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, Chad Kimball, Caesar Samayoa
Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Royal Alexandra Theatr

Here's a stop-over you will not want to miss: Go see Come From Away at the newly restored Royal Alexandra theatre in Toronto before it heads to New York.

Heart-warming and human-sized, this musical set in Gander, Nfld., in the week after Sept. 11, 2001, will remind you that, when things are at their worst, many people rise to their best.

Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, lyrics and music for the Broadway-bound show – which has had tremendous buzz surrounding it since its first workshop at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., buzz that has turned out to be entirely justified.

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It is based on hundreds of hours of interviews the artists conducted with the people from Gander and surrounding towns – as well as Americans, Brits, Egyptians, Moldovans and folks of just about every other nationality who were stranded when 38 planes were diverted to Newfoundland after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, effectively doubling the population.

With conversational lyrics and direct-address dialogue, Come From Away has the feel of a documentary play – and the look, too, with 12 actors (nine Americans; three Canadians) impressively switching back and forth between playing Newfoundlanders and come-from-aways (the local expression for non-Newfoundlanders).

Designer Beowulf Boritt's set brings a big-budget bucolic twist to what is essentially a group of chairs on a turntable that director Christopher Ashley expertly rearranges to evoke planes, legion halls, churches – and a school bus travelling down a highway full of moose.

The cathartic, emotional story told in this way is one of terror transformed by altruism, fear morphing into fellowship through simple acts of kindness from strangers – whether locals flooding the Lion's club with toilet paper, a teacher (a hearty Astrid Van Wieren) telling bad jokes to cheer up a stranded mother worried about her son, or an SPCA worker (bona fide Newfoundlander Petrina Bromley, as honest and grounded an actor as you will find anywhere) defying police orders to get into cargo bays and feed the animals.

Despite 9/11 being always in the background, Come From Away is a funny show, too – very funny, in fact, with much of the humour coming from how little the "plane people" know about where they have landed.

Culture clashes and fish-out-of-water stories have been long been the subjects of classic American musical theatre – from Rodgers and Hammerstein staples such as South Pacific and The King and I to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's The Book of Mormon.

What is different and perhaps mostly noticeably Canadian about Sankoff and Hein's musical is that this is the first I have seen exploring this dramatic zone where neither side is given short shrift or "othered." While Newfoundland is portrayed as quirky and charming and filled with cod-kissing rituals as it is in real life, the Gander residents are real and struggling with the historic events unfolding elsewhere like everyone else; unlike everyone else, however, they can do something other than just watch the images on television.

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Indeed, Come From Away breaks furthest from musical theatre tradition in having two collective protagonists: The CFAs and the Islanders.

The show's powerful point about humans coming together is echoed in its form – an ensemble uniting to tell as many stories as possible.

The show has only one solo – Jenn Colella as American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, singing about her love affair with flight, her fight to become the first female pilot of a commercial airliner – and the day her passion was turned into a weapon. An extraordinarily evocative actress, Colella broke 1,244 hearts with this on the sold-out opening night at the Royal Alexandra.

Come From Away may be a celebration of humanity – but it is not starry-eyed. Sankoff and Hein do an especially nuanced job of writing about what it was like to be a Muslim in those circumstances, actors Caesar Samayoa and Collela interacting in the musical's most complex moment, one where otherness is not overcome and cultures conflict in an impossible way.

The accessible story, strong emotional core and gorgeous songwriting should not distract from how original and smart this gem of a musical is.

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