Broadway has been back (post-Covid shutdowns) at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall just since last month, when Escape to Margaritaville opened the season. This week, it’s back once more with a rousing production of the hit Come From Away—probably one of the warmest, most uplifting shows you’ll see for quite a while.
The musical, based on the true story of thousands of passengers grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, bowed on Apple TV+ a couple of months ago in a filmed version of the stage show. Theater-starved viewers enjoyed and appreciated it, but as we all know, there’s nothing like seeing a show in person, live, in a theater filled with other audience members (in this case, wearing masks and having proof of vaccination or negative Covid test per protocols).
That impact of being live is evident from the first song of the musical, by Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein. “Welcome to the Rock,” with its proud refrain of “I am an islander,” introduces us to some of the town’s residents, from the mayor to an ASPCA worker to a policeman to a teacher at an academy. Backed by a band playing traditional instruments like Irish flute, fiddle, mandolins and more, and with exciting choreography originated by Kelly Devine, the cast of 12 propels onto the stage with an energy that never flags during the intermission-less, approximately 105-minute evening.
Those 12 actors play both the locals and the bewildered, incoming passengers, a variety of characters from around the world who all just happened to be stranded in the air for hours after the 9/11 attacks, without even knowing why. Once we get to know a few of their names and backgrounds, it’s not a struggle to keep up with the fast-moving action, as a doffing or donning of a jacket or a pair of glasses or a cap transforms a performer from one role to another. It all flows smoothly while keeping the story unfolding and the music rolling.
Although what happened on 9/11 was tragic—and Come From Away doesn’t soft-pedal that, as personal losses are faced—there is also much humor in the show, often deriving from the interactions between the Canadians (open, engaging, sometimes a bit naïve) and the passengers (all “come from aways” to the native islanders). To some of the arrivals, it’s almost as hard to believe the welcoming nature of the residents, eager to help total strangers with bedding or food or phones, as it is to believe what’s happening in the outer world.
Probably everyone who sees Come From Away will have a favorite song or character. Some of mine, besides the opening number, are “Me and the Sky," sung by a female airplane pilot (Marika Aubrey) upset because the planes she loves to fly were used to cause deaths; the haunting “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere,” as the passengers somberly head home to a changed existence; and, of course, “Screech In,” a pub number that depicts the ceremonial tradition of newbies becoming Newfoundlanders by drinking some god-awful booze and “kissing the cod.” (Yes, it’s true.)
But every character gets at least a moment to hold us, whether it’s a gay couple, both named Kevin (Nick Duckart and Jeremy Woodard); possible new couple Texas Diane and British Nick (Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson); or the animal-loving Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh). I could go on about their stories and others; but you might want to discover them for yourself.
If you do, this touring production of Come From Away continues through Sunday, Nov. 28 (no show on Thanksgiving). For tickets, call (941) 263-6799 or visit vanwezel.org.