Having spent a large part of the past 17 years traveling to Canada and reporting very positively on Canadian culture, once again, I was not surprised by the fact that one of the hottest tickets on Bway right now is, of all things, a feel-good musical about 9/11! No, I’m not kidding. Only Canadians could have written this foot-stomping and even funny look at a tragedy, that I who was also stuck in Canada while it was happening can verify. I was trapped at the Toronto Film Festival with my camera crew of three. We were lucky. We had TRAIN tickets so we could get out of there as scheduled. But no planes were flying. FOR DAYS!
Which is what “Come From Away” is dealing with. It’s the rather arcane story(on paper) of some 7000 passengers getting diverted to Newfoundland, a small island in the far eastern part of this very large and large-hearted nation. “Come From Away” is the most positive take on Newfoundland I’ve ever seen and so enjoyable it makes the case very well for Americans, who are restive and restless in this particularly troubling time in our history to just get on a plane, boat or train as soon as possible and move there, lock, stock and barrel. Which is what “Come From Away” tries to depict. And the openness, do-good-ed-ness, politeness and warmth many American will find a tad unbelievable. But it’s true. Yes, they ARE like that. Meryl Streep recently called them “the nicest people in the world,” and I think she’s right.
Newfoundland, particularly, as strange as it may seem, is the butt of endless Canadian jokes, akin to our own misguided Polish jokes. As in “How many Newfis does it take to screw in a light-bulb?” etc.
But not the Newfoundland in “Come From Away”. The husband-and-wife writing team of Irene Sankien and David Hein, Torontonians both, have done their homeland proud here. The strangest thing that their Newfis offer to the “plane people” is their tradition of kissing a fish(pictured above and also below),And yes, that’s Drama Desk nominee and Broadway stalwart Chad Kimball as the put-upon gay fish kisser, Kevin I. Yes, there’s a gay couple on the stranded plane, too, who are both named Kevin. “It was cute at first, but then it got old” says one Kevin.
Kimball is also called upon to play President George W. Bush, and he does it with raising nary a snicker. The Other Kevin, the amazingly versatile Cesar Samayoa also plays a Muslim, and many other dizzying roles. The whole singing cast of twelve is made to seem like a cast of thousands in that respect as they flash instantly from one role, and one accent and nationality, at the speed of light.
In such a strong ensemble, it seems unfair to single out individual actors, but I have to mention another Broadway bright light Jenn Collela, as the pilot of one of the grounded planes. She gets almost the only complete solo in “Come From Away” as she sings about her girlhood dream of becoming a pilot in the on-point “Me and the Sky.”
I wish some of the other characters were more developed. Kimball ALMOST gets a solo in “Prayer” but then others join in. It’s hard to sit for an intermission-less 90 minutes, and try in identify with an amassed crowd, as opposed to single characters. But I’m old-fashioned that way. I like characters. In plays. In musicals. On film. And this is the flaw in “Come From Away” and leads to many of its’ distressing lulls.
It’s got a rousing opening number “Welcome to the Rock” that the entire cast sings and I wish there were more songs like this. The great Christopher Ashley as director whips them into a frenzy, as much as he can. It’s hard to whip a singing throng.
This is currently being talked up as a possible Best Musical of the Year. But against “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” which is just across the street, I wonder….I play the music for “Natasha, Pierre…” morning, noon, and night, and I’m talking about the ORIGINAL circus tent Off Broadway cast album which stars Phillipa Soo. And now, FINALLY, they’ve recorded Josh Groban and the Original BROADWAY cast singing it, which is due in stores any minute now….
“Come From Away” is a musical that is incredibly timely in that it’s not too early and not too late in the cultural conversation to be embraced and enjoyed for its’ light-hearted look at a national tragedy.
It’s recency cuts both ways.