After the Sept. 11, 2021 terrorist attacks, American airspace was shut for days, causing 38 inbound flights to be diverted to a Newfoundland island airport. The planes sat on the tarmac for more than 24 hours before their 7,000 passengers were given security clearance to disembark.
“Come From Away”—continuing at Segerstrom Hall through this weekend—tells the powerful story of how a “simple and plain” Newfoundland community fed and sheltered those bewildered visitors for several days, through a musically engaging, sharply funny and deeply human production.
With music, lyrics and book written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein in 2015, and expertly directed by Christopher Ashley, “Come From Away” works because it’s entirely character driven, in addition to being musically resonant and tightly choreographed.
Its 12 cast members play one or two main characters plus innumerable “others,” portraying dozens of townspeople and stranded passengers through precisely timed movements about the stage, fluidly switching between heavy accents and changing coats and hats on a dime. Cast members also deftly manipulate chairs as they whirl through the story, creating airplane cabins, school buses, emergency shelters and a bar. Along the way, they deliver their lines with energy, truth and humor—the townspeople's charming Newfoundland accent being half the fun.
As if that weren’t enough, each cast member also sings excellently, accompanied by a live band on stage (conducted by Cameron Moncur)—with instruments ranging from accordion to harmonium, Irish flute, Uilleann pipes, fiddle, bodhran drum, mandolin and acoustic and electric guitars—creating a sort of Irish yet otherworldly Newfoundland sound. No wonder the opening-night audience reacted to the production as if experiencing a rock concert.
But the story goes deeper than its funny portrayal of Canadian / American / international visitor culture shock. Through its characters, “Come From Away” captures an America reeling from losses both national and personal. Songs such as “I Am Here,” “Prayer,” “Something’s Missing,” convey soul-stirring feelings following unspeakable tragedy. Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) can’t locate her New York firefighter son. Egyptian Muslim Ali (Nick Duckart) faces suspicion and scrutiny when, as a professional chef, all he wants to do is help cook food for everyone.
And pilot Beverley (Marika Aubrey)—perhaps the most rounded character—borrows a passenger’s phone to assure her husband and children she is okay while worrying about aircraft sitting idle for so long, risking impairment, and a storm approaching that would delay their departure even further. Aubrey is literally pitch-perfect in her authoritative delivery as well as her singing. Her soaring “Me and the Sky,” about how much Beverley always wanted to fly and then did—becoming American Airlines’ first female captain—is both inspiring and devastating.
All the actors are similarly persuasive in their roles—from the town mayor (Kevin Carolan) who has to mobilize the town while negotiating a bus strike, to the town’s only radio reporter (Jenny Ashman on opening night) experiencing a nerve-wracking first week on the job, to the animal-rescue worker (Kristen Peace) worried about the cats, dogs and even chimpanzees in the cargo hold—and everyone else besides. Unexpected friendships form, both platonic and romantic, while a relationship between two men named Kevin (Duckart and Jeremy Woodard) slowly unravels.
The set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) allows the actors space to move, fittingly framed by tall trees and backdropped by a natural looking wall that transforms through intricate lighting (Howell Binkley) to evoke different locations, including the inside of a plane cabin and a starry night sky.
This stellar touring production of “Come From Away” involves a cast and band who work energetically and harmoniously together while portraying a story of townspeople who do exactly the same. It keeps alive a moment in time now almost 21 years old woven into the fabric of our nation. By avoiding pandering images of destruction and instead focusing on how humans helped each other, it allows us to see the beautiful and even spiritual along with the pain—an inspired salve to a deep wound.
“Come From Away” continues at Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, through June 26, with performances Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $28 to $106 and can be purchased online at SCFTA.org or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Proof of is required; masks are optional. Run time is 1 hour and 42 minutes without intermission.