Dallas — The onslaught of a major international health crisis at the same moment as the arrival in Dallas of a touring production of a hit Broadway musical based on the shattering events of 2001 definitely creates a coincidence worth pondering — even more so in that Dallas and characters from the Dallas area figure prominently in Come From Away, which had three performances at the Music Hall at Fair Park via Dallas Summer Musicals last week until, like every other arts and entertainment happening, the Coronavirus crisis shut it down.
Come From Away deals with the reaction of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland (population ca. 11,000), to the arrival, because of its strategic location on the edge of North America and the Atlantic Ocean, of approximately 6,000 stranded air passengers and flight crews in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the subsequent closing of airspace over the U.S. Drawing on real-life narratives from participants in the events in Gander during the week following the attack, Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein, both functioning as lyricists, playwrights, and composers, created a powerful work on several levels.
The musical made a meandering journey from early workshops in Canada in 2012 through successful tryouts across the continent (including a concert version in Gander) before landing on Broadway as an instant hit in 2017, where it has continued a successful run up through the current crisis-related theater closings in New York. Touring productions are often fraught with issues, but Come From Away, basically an intimate ensemble piece, manages to come across powerfully in the cavernous spaces of Fair Park Music Hall.
Much of the credit for the success of the Wednesday night performance I attended goes to the 12-member touring company cast, in which each actor played multiple roles of Newfoundland residents and stranded travelers. And they did so with such skill that an audience member easily understands, and hardly even notices the rapid-fire shifts. (The most striking example arrived as actor Nick Duckart transform from an early-2000s urban American gay guy to a Moslem chef, without missing a beat. Interestingly, both of those characters experienced perceived as well as real marginalization in the course of the show.)
Marika Aubrey got the show’s best shake-the-rafters anthem in the form of “Me and the Sky,” wherein she portrays Texan Beverley Bass, a real-life ground-breaking first female airline pilot (TCU graduate Bass still lives in the Dallas area). With performers like Aubrey interpreting, “Me and the Sky” is destined to achieve classic Broadway aria status. Elsewhere in a cast that was uniformly outstanding, Danielle K. Thomas was particularly heart-wrenching as Hannah, the mother of a missing New York firefighter; Julia Knitel always captured the spotlight as Janice, the hapless local television news reporter. Harter Clingman as Oz, the police chief, and Kevin Carolan as Mayor Claude also turned in unforgettable interpretations: at one point, Carolan has to become several different small-town Newfoundland mayors within a timespan of about 30 seconds. North Texas actors Julie Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson, each playing multiple roles, have been in the cast since this tour began.
Christopher Ashley, who has been with the production as director since its early days (and who is slated to direct the movie version) has created a relentlessly energetic staging including simple but effective choreography for a show in which the drama is the main focus. Beowulf Boritt’s sets and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes manage to create a sense of specific place—an outpost that suddenly finds itself at the center of the world—as well as a sense of universality of human experience.
But the real stars of the show are the creators Sankoff and Hein, who performed the miracle of turning a non-fictional event from recent history into a lively, moving, and unfailingly engaging show. The musical score (masterfully performed by a small orchestra under Cameron Moncur) blends heavy Celtic influence (appropriate to Newfoundland) and contemporary Broadway into a seamless tapestry woven together with a skill reminiscent of Puccini or Sondheim. Comedy, pathos, and real human nature abound, right up to the two-hankie finale (including the landing of Bass’s plane at DFW airport after departure from Gander).
Those of us who were alive in September 2001 can, while viewing Come From Away, experience pangs of nostalgia as well as memories of the anxiety and grief that accompanied those times—which were even more intense, obviously, for the thousands of travelers suddenly diverted to an island in the Atlantic and who, for many hours, had no idea why. The current international crisis is in many ways different, but in many ways the same, as twenty-first-century humanity once again faces immediate realization of the commonality of all members of our species and the fragility of our existence. As in 2001, there are even now already moments of fear, frustration, and anger; Come From Away reminds us that there will also no doubt be instances, in the days ahead, of courage, generosity, and previously undiscovered wisdom from ordinary people.
» The tour of Come From Away is scheduled to play Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, July 7-12; and Dallas Summer Musicals is promising that the postponed Dallas engagement will return soon.