Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. A small town, in a small province. Its airport was once a major hub for both military and civilian aircraft. But once jet engines reduced the need for refueling, Gander International became like any other quiet, regional airport: albeit one with an enormous airfield and four huge runways.
And so it stayed until the fateful night of the 11th September 2001. In response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia, hundreds of aircraft were diverted out of US airspace, and into Canada, nearly 30 of them to Gander.
The population of Gander swelled by almost 100% and for the next few days, food, accommodation, supplies, and friendship, were provided by the hospitable people of the town and surrounding settlements.
Come From Away tells the story of the little town of Gander, the “plane people”, and the humanity that bound them together in a moment in time.
Written by Canadian powerhouse team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away grounds itself both musically, and in narrative terms, in the culture and cadences of Newfoundland.
The usual orchestra is replaced by a band of traditional and contemporary instruments, under the expert guidance of musical director Michael Tyack. From the opening number, the heart-stopping rhythms of Canadian folk music explode into the audience. No cold-opens here!
The mostly Australian cast clearly reveled in the material, each performer taking on more than one role. It is almost impossible to pick any of them out for special mention, but stand-outs included: Douglas Hansell as Kevin T & others; Kat Harrison as Bonnie & others, Joe Kosky as Oz & others; Zoe Gertz as Beverley & others; and Joseph Naim as Kevin J & others.
The entire ensemble got everything right. Characterisation was sharp but with depth, singing was pitch-perfect and passionate, and dancing and movement was a joy to watch.
Many contemporary musicals rely on one or two big belter-numbers, and some very fancy, expensive scenery. And these are often held together with the narrative equivalent of gaffer-tape. Not so with Come From Away.
In production terms, this is a simple show: a plain, but effective set; some tables and chairs passing for everything from a plane cabin, to a mountainside; a relatively small cast for a musical; a small band; fantastic, but not tricksy, lighting; and costume/character changes wrought by the simple additions of hats, yarmulkes, and cardigans.
The depth is in the narrative, lyrics, music, and performances. Stories of “the plane people” are interspersed with stories of Gander itself. One couple fall in love; another breaks up; the local animal lover rescues a cat, several dogs, and a pregnant Bonobos monkey; American Airlines first female Captain tells her story as her plane is grounded; a mother frantically waits for news of her son, a firefighter in New York. All these pictures blend together into one holistic panorama of humanity at its best.
Come From Away is a superb musical; but more than that, it is an almost flawless piece of theatre. The spontaneous, explosive, standing ovation, from the Adelaide opening-night crowd, is testament to that.
Come From Away
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide
Performance: Wednesday 29 March 2023
Season continues to 29 April 2023
Following the Adelaide season, Come From Away will play the Crown Theatre Perth from 6 May; and the Canberra Theatre Centre from 8 June 2023. For more information, visit: www.comefromaway.com.au for details.
Image: Come From Away (Australian Cast) – photo by Jeff Busby