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Review: Come From Away a celebration of resilience and big-heartedness

At first glance, Come From Away’s premise seems rather odd and unpromising. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you realize that Come From Away is really a story about human kindness and compassion in the face of adversity.
The cast of the musical Come From Away belts out the finale at Wednesday's opening night at the Royal Theatre. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

It was a history-making party for 1,400-plus Wednesday night when the musical Come From Away played to a packed house at the Royal Theatre.

Why was the atmosphere so rollicking, so celebratory? Well, for starters, Come From Away has emerged as the hottest ticket of the season. The touring Broadway musical, running at the Royal to May 24, has so far attracted more than 24,000 ticket-buyers — the most for a single show in the 110-year-old Royal Theatre’s history.

The evening seemed also to celebrate surviving a pandemic and the return of audiences to live entertainment. This month the World Health Organization ended its global emergency status for COVID-19. In the Royal I didn’t notice a single person wearing a mask. People chattered happily, waved to their friends and leapt to their feet to roar approval at the end.

Truly, it felt like a party.

The fun-time atmosphere extended to a pre-show lobby reception, where Kenny and Marleen Alhadeff — two of Come From Away’s original producers — made an impromptu speech to cocktail-quaffing attendees.

Both critically acclaimed and award-winning, Come From Away is the longest running (2017 to 2022) Canadian musical in Broadway history.

The creators are the Canuck team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein. (Hein will attend the run’s final show as well some of the actual folk who were on the stranded airplane depicted in the musical, says Henry Kolenko of Broadway in Victoria.)

The plot is based on a true story. Following the 9/11 attacks, planes were diverted from New York City airports. Surprisingly, 38 of them ended up in Gander, Newfoundland, home to a small international airport. This small island town hosted almost 7,000 evacuees from international flights.

At first glance Come From Away’s premise seems rather odd and unpromising. Simply put, emergency plane landings in the face of terrorist attacks don’t sound like grist for Broadway hits. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you realize that Come From Away is really a story about human kindness and compassion in the face of adversity. The characters are global citizens from all walks of life — the themes being explored are universal.

In America, Canadians have a reputation for being nice and perhaps a little dull. The creators of Come From Away have taken the former and run with it. Refugees are welcomed with open arms. They must be fed, housed and provided with fresh clothing. Yet the Ganderites go far beyond that. Whiskey cabinets are happily opened, dental floss and bad jokes are gleefully dispensed, kitchen parties are hosted complete with a traditional codfish-kissing ceremony.

The inhabitants of Gander are portrayed as the kind of salt-of-the-earth characters that populated The Andy Griffith Show. The performers depict the Newfoundlanders as being in possession of the thickest regional accents this side of Ireland. Canadian content abounds, with references to Tim Horton’s, Shoppers Drug Mart, the “legion” and the infamous East Coast libation known as Screech.

In one scene a passenger called Bob (James Earl Jones II) is instructed to round up gas barbecues from neighbours to help feed the masses. (“Just go to people’s yards and take their grills.”) Naturally, being American, Bob fears being shot to death. Instead he’s offered cups of tea. O, Canada, indeed.

It’s not all Hallmark-style hugs and smooches. One passenger learns her son, a firefighter, has died in the 9/11 attacks. Before leaving Canada, a Muslim passenger is humiliated by an ugly strip search. In another scene, the captain of the plane, Beverley (well sung by Marika Aubrey), remembers the prejudice she encountered trying to establish herself as a pilot in a male-dominated field.

In order to engage the audience a few personal narratives are more fully explored. An unlikely romance blossoms between an awkward Englishman (James Kall) and an American woman (Christine Toy Johnson). Elsewhere a romantic relationship between two men named Kevin (Ali Momen and the excellent Jeremy Woodard) falls apart when one reveals the petty side of his personality (we know he’s a baddie when he sneers at the offer of a bologna sandwich, snapping: “Aren’t there any vegetables in Canada?").

The 12 performers in this production are strong. On this evening the pacing of the first 30 minutes was a bit rushed, as though the cast was worried about losing the audience. Once or twice the dialogue was hard to make out, even though the band (featuring harmonium, Irish flute and uillean pipes) played at a reasonable volume.

Yet these are quibbles — this is a fine touring production well worth seeing. For the most part, Come From Away’s central message — a reminder of humanity’s potential for resilience, strength and big-heartedness — sidesteps sentimentality. Given the cynicism of the current political climate, it’s like being handed a chilled Perrier in the Sahara desert — and no doubt audiences are thirsting for it.