Friday 26 July 2019

Review: Come from Away, Melbourne

I first heard of this musical at a business lunch, of all things. As it’s set in Newfoundland, the marketing body Destination Canada invited the producer along to an event where reps from Canada’s different provinces sing their praises to journalists.

Newfoundland’s probably the least known province to Aussies, or close to it, as it’s so remote. But that remoteness lies at the heart of this musical, which tells the story of what happened in a small Newfie town after the events of 11 September 2001.

Gander once had a big and busy airport, used as a refuelling stop by aircraft in the early days of trans-Atlantic flight. But as commercial planes became powerful enough to leap that ocean in a single bound, its airport slipped into irrelevance.

Until September 11. When US airspace was shut down after the terrorist attacks on New York City, dozens of passenger planes in the air were ordered to land at Gander, whose runways were big enough to cope with most aircraft.

It soon became obvious that their passengers were going to be stuck in Gander for an indeterminate number of days. As the town instantly doubled in population with these thousands of newcomers, crisis loomed – until the people of Gander leapt into action, housing the stranded, making them meals, inviting them home, even taking care of the animals that had been overlooked in aircraft cargo holds.

It’s a heartwarming true story, set to a background of tragedy, and it was this example of human generosity that inspired Come from Away’s creators to set it to music. I would never have considered that genre for a drama like this, but it’s perfect – the music and choreography perfectly brings out both the pace of those days and the emotions of all involved.

To the production’s credit, it isn’t at all syrupy. There’s a lot of positivity in the dialogue and lyrics as the startled townsfolk and dazed passengers get to know and help each other, but there are also darker undertones that anchor the story to reality.

These include suspicions levelled at Muslims among the passengers, tensions within frayed relationships, worries about loved ones far away, and always the horror of what has happened in New York. This last factor is crystallised in the form of a woman whose son is a firefighter in NYC, she having no idea of whether he’s alive or dead.

The cast do a marvellous job of speaking, singing, dancing, interacting, at a nonstop pace which reflects what it must have felt like to be in Gander for those four fraught days. Actors play multiple roles, switching from passengers to townspeople to officials via simple but effective changes in clothing or headwear.

There’s some lovely overt humour, including that of the townswoman whose reports to the audience always involve her in an imaginary romantic entanglement with whatever sexy pilot or doctor or teacher she’s been dealing with. There are also laughs from the mild collision of small-town ways with those of the wider cosmopolitan world, re food and sexuality and language.

In the end, Come from Away is a homage to the better side of humanity, while never overlooking its worst impulses. In its portrayal of a crisis that left no one unchanged by the strange interlude they spent in the middle of nowhere in the aftermath of destruction, it’s a potent message of hope and a great mood enhancer.

Come from Away is now playing at the Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, Australia. For details and bookings, visit the Australian production’s website.

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