When asked how to talk about scary news with small children, Fred Rogers famously repeated his mother’s advice: “look for the helpers.”
Come from Away, the Tony-nominated musical that opened its Chicago run at the Cadillac Palace Wednesday night, takes Mr. Rogers’ advice to heart. The show turns its warm gaze on the true story of the smalltown residents of Gander, Newfoundland, and how they helped thousands of airline passengers from 38 stranded planes in the hours and days following the September 11 attacks.
At first glance, the show’s premise may sound preposterous: a big warm-hearted musical about 9/11. But by maintaining a steady focus on the not-so-random acts of kindness between Islanders and “Plane People” alike, Come from Away delivers a message familiar to anyone who has seen the similarly uplifting Nomadland—just because a story is sad, doesn’t mean it has to be depressing.
Quite the contrary.
The uniformly talented cast of a dozen actors, who spend almost the entire show on stage, portray multiple characters who find (mostly) the best brought out in themselves under overwhelming circumstances. This deeply human story, aided by a propulsive Celtic-infused pop-rock score performed by the excellent onstage band, grips the audience’s attention with its opening anthem “Welcome to the Rock” and rarely pauses—not even for applause—until the emotional finale some 100 minutes later.
What happens in-between are a series of touching portraits of frightened people, offering and receiving gentle support, both big and small, that utterly capture the hearts and sentiments of the audience ….
…a neophyte reporter plunged into one of the biggest stories of the decade (Julia Knitle—displaying an endearing Bambi’s first-walk-on-the-ice nervousness)
… a local SPCA representative whose first thought is for the animals stored in the planes’ cargo holds (a feisty, loveable Sharone Sayegh)
… a mother terrified for her New York firefighter son (Danielle K. Thomas, whose heartbreaking solo “I Am Here” lingers long after the show is over)
… the irascible, tireless Gander mayor devoted to all the people in his town, including the new arrivals (played with an infectious brio by Kevin Carolan)
… an out-of-his-element gay passenger and an Egyptian chef facing both welcome and suspicion (the versatile Nick Duckart in both roles)
… an improbable, just-met couple, literally rubbing elbows for the first time on their plane, who spend their time on the island falling in love (Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson)—their first kiss bringing peals of joy and laughter.
Perhaps the biggest standout in the cast is Marika Aubrey, who has what is possibly the best role in the show: Beverly Bass, American Airlines’ first female captain and the first American woman to lead an entirely female flight crew. The role affords Aubrey the chance to demonstrate her powerful voice in the inspiring “Me and the Sky,” backed by the other women in the ensemble. In addition to her commanding singing, Aubrey’s expert performance demonstrates the leadership and grit Beverly Bass possessed not merely on 9/11, but throughout her career.
Also worth celebrating is the performance of James Earl Jones II (who, despite what you might guess, is NOT Darth Vader’s son). Whether performing a fish-out-of-water New Yorker overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers (and the refreshing lack of racial tensions), a super-confident Barry White-esque Virgin Airlines pilot or terrified non-English speaker, Jones fills his characters with humor, charisma, and sympathy.
A final shout-out must go to Julie Johnson and her indelible performance as Beulah Davis, the principal of the local school. Johnson imbues her character with just the right mix of motherly concern, no-nonsense practicality and bottomless good humor to convince anyone to stand in her chow line for a helping of her version of the local delicacy: baked cod tongue with cheese.
Just over two decades have passed since the attacks of September 11. And in those 20 years, the world hasn’t exactly improved. But Come from Away reminds us that there is more to the story. It shows us that we are all capable of a great and simple thing: human kindness. And, amid pandemics, xenophobia, and war, that is our best help of all.
Come From Away is directed by Christopher Ashley. Book, music and lyrics are by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who visited Gander on the 10th anniversary of the attacks to gather material by interviewing locals and returning passengers.
Come From Away continues through Sunday, March 6, at the Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets are $46 to $112 and you can buy them at www.broadwayinchicago.com. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission.
Guest reviewer Doug Mose is glad to be back attending live Chicago theater and making plans for a trip to Newfoundland.
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