As my husband, Mark, said on the way home from Tuesday’s opening night of “Come from Away” at Proctors, “It felt like all one sentence.”
This musical, by Irene Hankoff and David Hein, is a (largely) breathless recounting of the events in Gander, Newfoundland, from Sept. 11-16, 2001, after all planes were grounded because of the destruction of the Twin Towers. The story focuses on the passengers of an American Airlines flight from London to Dallas, though there were nearly 7,000 passengers from 38 commercial flights (and four military planes) overwhelming the small town and testing its hospitality resources.
Gander, of course, passed the test, and so successfully that friendships between the residents and the travelers were formed and a 2011 reunion occurred. In short, the musical has been rightly called “feel-good” by critics and audiences since its Tony-nominated run in 2017. (Christopher Ashley won the award for best direction that year, and he is at the helm of this traveling production.)
From the first beat of the show, which runs 105 uninterrupted minutes, to the curtain call featuring a seven-member band playing lively Irish tunes, the characters and plot race by (sometimes faster than the ear can pick up all of the dialogue or lyrics). The production is an ensemble effort, with 12 performers taking multiple parts by, for example, changing up an accent or donning a cap, shifting quickly between the personalities of the townspeople and the passengers.
It’s not that we don’t get to know them well: Beverley (Marika Aubrey) sings about her career as a female pilot; Hannah (Sharriese Hamilton) is a mother frantically trying to reach her firefighting son in New York City and being consoled by Gander resident Beulah (Julie Johnson); the relationship of lovers Kevin J. (Nick Duckart) and Kevin T. (Jeremy Woodard) is tested by this calamitous chain of event; Ali (Duckart) faces the challenge of being a Muslim in light of the religious background of the 9/11 attackers; and, to his surprise, African American passenger Bob (James Earl Jones II) finds that, stranger though he is, he seems to be judged by his race less in Gander than he is back home in the U.S. Others in Tuesday’s stellar cast included Kevin Carolan, Kilty Reidy, Chamblee Ferguson, Christine Toy Johnson, Jane Bunting, and Sharone Sayegh.
Though there are some quiet moments — when the characters finally learn of what has happened in NYC and when Hannah sings about her son, for instance — the forward thrust of the show (that breathless, one-long-sentence feeling) is maintained by abrupt and crisp lighting changes (courtesy of Howell Binkley) and high-stepping choreography (Kelly Devine), as well as a revolving stage. In addition, the band (music direction by Cameron Moncur) often plays a thrumming underscore during dialogue, and the characters shift quickly from narrating directly to the audience, to speaking to each other, and to moving seamlessly into song.
Does it work? As a highly theatrical piece of art, done with stunning precision, it does.
And as upbeat commentary on our better angels, it does; that is, we can identify with the stranded travelers and the caring hosts in equal measure. The script is full of humor, both straightforward and ironic, which is where, in uncomfortable situations, most of us find some comfort.
Note: COVID concerns probably prevented this performance from being sold out, but the crowd was very large, thanks to vaccination and strict masking requirements. We were in the balcony, where we could also practice distancing.
‘Come from Away’
WHERE: Proctors Theatre, 432 State St.
WHEN: Through Jan. 30
HOW MUCH: $115.50- $25.50
MORE INFO: 518.346.6204, or proctors.org