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Theater review: Come From Away, by the Seattle Repertory Theater

Anybody who’s hung around me and/or read my blog for more than five minutes running already knows about my longstanding love of Great Big Sea and of Newfoundland traditional music. With this in mind, it should surprise exactly none of you that I positively adored Come From Away, the new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, being put on right now at the Seattle Repertory Theater.

A bit of background, first. In Newfoundland parlance, a “Come From Away” is a visitor to the province. The reason this is relevant is because what this play’s about is the story of how the town of Gander, Newfoundland (and several other small surrounding communities) had to play sudden host to 38 planes’ worth of shocked travelers on 9/11. When American airspace was locked down, all those planes, without a place to land, had to lay over in Gander. The musical is all about what happened, how the “plane people” reacted to being in such a remote place, and how the locals rose to the occasion and opened their communities, homes, and hearts to all these incoming people.

And, hands down, I loved this story from start to finish. The cast was amazing. Every single member of the cast flipped seamlessly between playing locals and playing “plane people”, often of multiple nationalities in the case of the latter. Thanks to my long familiarity with Great Big Sea as well as the chance to visit Newfoundland in 2012, I was able to note with pleasure that assorted Newfoundland accents and dialogue were absolutely authentic-sounding to my ears.

Also thanks to my long familiarity with Great Big Sea, I was very happy to hear that Bob Hallett of same was the musical consultant. I had this to say on the matter on Twitter:

Mr. Hallett, bless ‘im, RTed that right up. 😀 Because yeah. All throughout the production, the musicians were back there laying down rhythms that sounded very, very familiar. And the instrumentation was a welcome joy as well, with a fiddler, an accordion, a whistle, a flute, and even a bouzouki. (Which delighted me to hear, and leads me to wonder if this production will now be responsible for helping more than five people in this town, outside the local Irish and Quebecois session crowds, actually know what a bouzouki is!)

Story-wise, dealing with subject matter like 9/11, you can’t help but tread a little carefully. But I feel this production did a splendid job of it, treating it with the gravity it deserved (particularly in the number “Something’s Missing”, in which several of the plane people, getting back to New York, react to the absence of the towers). At the same time they leavened it with a great deal of joy and humor and smaller-scale stories. There are two different relationships talked about in the plot, a straight pairing and a gay one. There’s a friendship that blooms between a teacher with a son who’s a firefighter and one of the locals who tries to reassure her in her worry over whether her son is okay. And amongst the minor characters, one of my favorites is the woman from the SPCA who made it her personal quest to see to all the animals who’d been traveling on the planes along with the people.

There was also welcome diversity amongst the characters represented, even aside from the gay couple (who happen to both be named “Colin”). Props to Caesar Samayoa, who, in addition to his playing one of the two Colins, also played an Egyptian character named Ali who had to react to the mistrust of other plane people as well as the initial nervousness of the locals about his presence. Rodney Hicks was excellent both in the role of a black man thoroughly blown away by how he’s treated in Gander vs. how he’s used to being treated at home (and some of the exchanges he has with the mayor are among the funniest bits in the dialogue), and an African traveler who demonstrates the need for a lot of the locals to figure out fast how to communicate with people who aren’t English speakers.

Similarly, the plot gives space to people of other religions as well. Samayoa’s character Ali, along with two actresses in headscarves, deliver understated yet powerful performances during the number “Prayer”, interwoven with the other Colin (played by Chad Kimball) talking about how he kept flashing back to a hymn he’d remembered from his childhood.

The set design was minimal, yet the cast made it work beautifully. There was a big rotating area in the middle of the stage, which lent a lot of motion to the choreography. Everyone kept nimbly moving chairs and other bits of furniture around to emulate the local Tim Hortons where the Gander folk liked to hang out, assorted planes and schoolbusses, and assorted places all throughout Gander where the plane people sheltered, visited, and did their best to try to absorb the magnitude of what had driven them all to have to land there.

Given my commentary about the music above, though, it’ll also surprise none of you that my favorite number was absolutely “Screech In”, wherein the locals realize they need to help their visitors blow off some steam fast, or else things are going to get ugly. So there’s a great big lively dance number set in a bar, wherein four of the plane people get to be “screeched in”–and for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a Newfoundland custom wherein you get named an honorary Newfoundlander if you do all the steps. There’s kissing of cod involved, not to mention the actual screech–which is rum. It’s delightful. And one of the reasons I really need to get back to Newfoundland is to be properly screeched in on Newfoundland soil!

It was during that bit, though, where we got the emotional turning points of the plotlines involving the aforementioned couples–set off against music that damn near made me leap out of my chair. They did “Heave Away”, you guys! I have this song. Three recordings of it, in fact, by the Fables (my second favorite Newfoundland band after Great Big Sea), the Punters, and the Bombadils. I had to sing along at least a little on the choruses!

And oh, there’s a lot more I could go into detail about. But I will satisfy myself with calling out two more of my favorite humor bits. One was the quick representations of assorted mayors of Newfoundland communities by holding up prop mustaches and hats in front of actor Joel Hatch, who was playing all of the mayors in question. And the other was the joke about “do you know why Newfoundlanders are so terrible at knock knock jokes?” (Answer: “Here, let me demonstrate for you! I’ll be a Newfoundlander.” “Knock knock!” “C’mon in, the door’s open!”)

And massive, massive props to actress Jenn Colella. She played Beverly, one of the pilots of the planes, and her character was powerful and authoritative and absolutely riveting; she gets a great number to herself, “Me and the Sky”, talking about her history becoming one of the first female captains with American Airlines, and her reactions to hearing about how one of the pilots on one of the downed planes was a guy she’d just seen back in London. Props as well to her comedic talents as she also played one of the locals of Gander, notable by her propensity to keep fantasizing about assorted men amongst the plane people. ;D

All in all: very, very grateful that Dara and I were able to score standby tickets for this show. I’m told that the remaining shows in the Seattle area are sold out, but I have got to say to any locals who read me: if you can see this show, by all means, do so! I left very happy indeed, and doubly pleased that I was able to stop in the theater shop beforehand and grab one of the CDs on sale (Manhattan Island Sessions, by Caitlin Warbelow, the stage band’s fiddle player), as well as a copy of The Day the World Came to Town, the book detailing the real-life events on which this musical is based. Very, very much looking forward to diving into both of these!

Many congratulations to all hands involved with this show!