Review: Come From Away. Book, Music & Lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein.Produced by LaJolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreographed by Kelly Devine. Musical Direction by Ian Eisendrath. With Eric Ankrim, Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Kendra Kassebaum, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Sharon Wheatley. Now through December 13, 2015 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Over the many, many years I’ve been writing about Seattle theater (six, if you’re counting) I’ve ranted a time or two or ten about the S.O.S.O. Or, if spelled out: the “Seattle Obligatory Standing Ovation” otherwise known as the annoying thing that happens at the end of EVERY musical theater performance in any of the big theaters in town, and at any major drama that might make the audience cry by making them think about their senile mom, the Holocaust or dead/dying animals. You known…the moment middle-aged, middle class folks feel obligated to stand up to show their appreciation for the show they’ve just seen regardless or not it was actually a good performance of a show worthy of a standing ovation. In Olden Days, the Standing “O” was a relatively rare thing, reserved for performances that were worthy, or on occasion, to honor old, famous stars worthy of such adulation because it was probably the last time you would see them on this mortal coil.
Nowadays, as I’ve said, most musicals at the Paramount, the 5th Avenue or the Village almost always get the standing ovation and of late, weepier dramas can do the same thing. And, frankly, it’s an abomination. When you stand for almost EVERYTHING then it loses all meaning…not EVERY performance is brilliant enough to DESERVE the honor of an ovation. And, the result is, when something actually DESERVES to be honored, how can you express that when it’s been debased by countless O.S.O’s at every awful show that traipses through the Paramount? I mean when “Flashdance: The Musical” gets an ovation, you know something’s fubar with the world.
I’ve wasted 275 words on the topic of standing ovations for the express purpose to inform you that FINALLY there’s a current show playing in Seattle that actually deserves a Standing Ovation. In fact, if it were humanly possible, the entire audience should form a human pyramid of delighted tearful appreciation at the wonders enacted onstage at Seattle Repertory Theatre with their brilliant and beautiful production of the new musical, COME FROM AWAY, a co-production with LaJolla Playhouse and surely on its way to a theater on Broadway in the foreseeable future. It’s the taut 100 minute musical theater piece that somehow manages to tell the story of what happened on September 11, 2001 when 38 trans-Atlantic air flights were forced to land at Gander, Newfoundland in Canada after the 4 hijacked planes went down earlier that day. Seven thousand passengers (including a pregnant Bonobo primate) had to be housed, fed and sheltered as the world collectively mourned and attempted to recover from the events of that day.
Somehow, the husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a compelling and heartfelt piece of musical theater that manages to collectively weave the stories of over two dozen major characters, most based on real people, to tell this uniquely vivid story of communities of strangers coming together to survive. Their script is a work of art as it interweaves the multiple stories and characters, and subtly incorporates the musical moments into the natural rhythm of the story. Unlike old school book musicals where a song just sort of happens put of nowhere, the musicality of Come From Away feels strangely normal and completely organic to its place in the story.
The music is strong as well. Sankoff & Hein are Canadians and native, Newfoundland folk music is the strongest musical thematic thread throughout the show. The show is beautifully orchestrated by August Eriksmoen and the music was arranged and directed by Ian Eisendrath who leads the fantastic 8 piece band onstage during the show. Musically, it’s a huge winner with most of the songs being ensemble numbers that feature the strengths of the entire cast. The big mid-show number “Screech In” takes place in a bar towards the end of the week, when some of the passengers become Honorary Newfoundlanders by “Kissing the Cod”. The fun energy of that number is contrasted with the emotionality of quieter numbers like the penultimate number “Something’s Missing” where all the characters react to life after 9/11. It was a raw and powerful reminder of that day and time in history, and there was considerable and visible emotion from the audience. (You probably need to bring a hankie…)
Come From Away is also blessed with superb design from the entire team including a simple but very effective turntable set by Beowulf Boritt, but it’s all captained by director Christopher Ashley, the artistic director at LaJolla Playhouse where this production originated. (It should be noted that the bulk of this show comes to the Rep intact from the LaJolla production which happened this past spring, including the majority of the cast and crew). This is a very complex show to stage with a large number of characters and plot lines to keep track of but Mr. Ashley does such an amazing job of keeping every single one of those characters and their plots accounted for and entwined with each other. And, because the music is so carefully integrated into the story, it’s tough to decipher where Mr. Ashey’s staging ends and the work of Kelly Devine’s gorgeous choreography must begin; it’s all so effortlessly entwined…seemingly. Regardless, the combined effort of their work unites to form a seamless whole.
That seems to be the over arching theme of this work…the entwining of the stories and the characters and the teamwork of the artists who all brought it to fruition. It all mimics what happened in Gander, Newfoundland during the week of September 11-17, 2001. It took a village on the earth to save a village in the sky. It takes a talented ensemble of actors to create all those characters and make them each individual beings. The terrific cast of Come From Away is up to the task. It is impossible to really single any individual out; they all work as a unified whole. There is no “lead” or “support” here…they all supported each other and each had multiple moments to stand out.
Jenn Colella as the Captain of the main plane featured in the show, Beverley, the Texas woman who was determined to become a pilot, gives a riveting performance as the authority figure in the show and has a beautiful solo song that tells her story…Joel Hatch as the Mayor of Gander (and every other town in Newfoundland!) movingly serves as the Canadian father/authority figure…Caesar Samayoa shines in two major roles, as an Islamic Egyptian on the plane, who’s looked upon with fear by others and, as one half of a gay couple, both named “Colin” with the other “Colin” superbly played by Chad Kimball.
Not to mention Rodney Hicks as the New Yorker Bob, who’s more perplexed by the Newfoundlanders than they are of him….and, Q. Smith as Lana, a worried mother with a firefighter son in New York City….Astrid Van Wieren as a local woman determined to help her find out information about that son….and, Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall as a “meet cute” couple who hesitantly woo each other, despite their apparent differences; she’s a divorced Texan and he’s a twitty Brit.
Or, the animal loving Bonnie, determined to save the animals on all those planes, and so charmingly played by Petrina Bromley…and, Eric Ankrim as the easygoing local, Oz…Kendra Kassebaum’s novice news reporter complete with an accent you can hang a Labatt’s on. Twelve great actors doing exceptional work.
Come From Away is a village effort made by villages in San Diego and Seattle and about villages in Canada and around the world and up in the sky. It took a lot of villages to make this beautiful piece of musical theater. It’s the best piece of theater on a Seattle stage in years.
It behooves you to try and grab tickets NOW so you can brag to your friends in a few years after Come From Away takes the world by storm.
Oh…and, you have my blessing to Standing Ovate to your heart’s content at this show…not that you need MY permission.