Epic kindness is born amid epic tragedy in ‘Come From Away’

SHARE Epic kindness is born amid epic tragedy in ‘Come From Away’
The North American Tour of “Come From Away” arrives at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Feb. 22.

The ensemble cast of “Come From Away” delivers a powerful message of hope in the songs of the Tony Award-winning musical.

Matthew Murphy

We all remember exactly where we were and exactly what we were doing during moments of collective tragedy, and that moment when our daily tasks suddenly seem inadequate and meaningless under the looming shadow of history.

Based on a true story, “Come From Away,” now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, examines those moments for residents of the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, who received over 7,000 unexpected visitors on Sept. 11, 2001, when all flights were grounded after an act of terrorism. The musical highlights and elevates the small gestures of care and connection between strangers that can make mourning the unfathomable, bearable. 

‘Come From Away’ 


When: Feb. 22-Mar. 6

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $25-$297

Run Time: 100 minutes, no intermission

Info: www.broadwayinchicago.com

Attempting to make a large story intimate is incredibly difficult, and married couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein who wrote the book, music and lyrics, set out to do just that. Through the use of an incredibly talented ensemble cast who play multiple characters each, (assisted by subtly clever costuming by Toni-Leslie James) viewers are treated to the moment-by-moment shifting perspectives of the townsfolk, passengers and pilots as they grapple with their new reality. Opening with a pulsing drumbeat, we follow the folksy Newfoundlanders as they rush to prepare food and lodging for the passengers and crew of 38 planes slated to land in their tiny airport, effectively doubling the population of their town. 

The theme of the show is waiting. The townsfolk wait for the visitors to arrive. The visitors wait to leave the plane. Everyone waits to call home and for updates on loved ones. This feeling of being trapped in a liminal space between realities is effective in setting a mood that’s uplifting enough to not be depressing, but not perky enough to become insensitive. However, the repetitive theme of waiting becomes, well, rather repetitive, and some scenes feel like retread ground. Many of the songs have a similar sound and are difficult to distinguish from one another, creating a musical emotional fog with few clear peaks or valleys. Having said that, the music is excellent, and one of the highlights of the show; a lively band (led on Wednesday’s opening night by associate music director and conductor Myrna Conn) featuring a fiddle, flute, accordion, mandolin, and something called an “Ugly Stick,” which has to be seen to be believed.

While there aren’t main characters per-se in this ensemble piece, some impactful storylines emerge. Beverly, one of the grounded pilots played by the incredibly talented Marika Aubrey, delivers a showstopper number in “Me and the Sky,” and Nick Duckart sensitivity plays Ali, a Middle-Eastern passenger who is met with hostility as news of the nature of the attacks break.

While one can appreciate that the musical doesn’t erase the existence of Islamophobia, the folksy tone isn’t nearly broad enough to effectively grapple with Ali’s fear and anger in that moment. The musical ultimately wraps up it’s more difficult storylines like this and others including homophobia and race, in insultingly cutesy bows. One wishes the writers had called Sondheim and borrowed a dissonant chord or two and left some things unresolved — you know — like life.

There’s a lovely friendship between resident and visitor Belulah and Hannah, Julie Johnson and Danielle K. Thomas respectively, two of the most engaging and hilarious actors in the entire ensemble. Nick Duckart and Jeremy Woodard play the delightfully funny and poignant (and identically monikered) Kevin and Kevin, a couple who learns about how each other operates under a stressful situation. There are ridiculously entertaining character moments, like a bit about a group of male cardiologists that leaves the audience in stitches, and pretty much every moment James Earl Jones II is involved in is awesome. 

Interestingly, and probably necessarily, the events of 9/11 are mostly only mentioned obliquely in ways that register powerfully in the memories of folks like myself, who remembered where we were on that day. I didn’t own a TV at the time and didn’t see the first images until I went to the bank and stood with the customers and employees, watching the screen in silent horror as we finished our transactions. But I wonder, for those who don’t have the same firsthand emotional connection, ifCome From Away” will register as powerfully? And if it doesn’t, perhaps that is for the best. To not have to carry such a weight is a blessing.

No work of art can truly encompass the fullness of tragedy, and this work seems to be created as a balm to help those who still grieve, an artistic gesture towards healing. Much like the blankets and food offered by the Gander residents, it may not be nearly “enough,” but it’s mightily appreciated. 

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