January 16, 2018

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Sold-out production of Come from Away is an important and masterful love letter to Canada

MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTO</p>

MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTO

This kind of opportunity doesn't come around very often. Since Jan. 4, Winnipeg audiences have had the chance to see the Canadian regional premiere of the musical Come From Away even as it is currently packing houses on Broadway.

It's an important work of theatre on its own, but it is also an important piece of Canadian theatre, depicting as it does the warm welcome given by the people of Gander, Nfld. to more than 6,000 international travellers in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when American airspace was closed and 38 passenger planes were forced to land in the remote east coast town.

Playwrights Irene Sankoff and David Hein gathered the material for the play in interviews culled from a trip to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It took no small amount of daring to come up with a play about those strange, jittery days, let alone a musical.

But what an excellent piece it is. And while some characters and events depicted have been altered for dramatic purposes, the play is, in its way, a fine piece of journalism, telling a single true story from multiple perspectives in a compelling way.

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This kind of opportunity doesn't come around very often. Since Jan. 4, Winnipeg audiences have had the chance to see the Canadian regional premiere of the musical Come From Away even as it is currently packing houses on Broadway.

It's an important work of theatre on its own, but it is also an important piece of Canadian theatre, depicting as it does the warm welcome given by the people of Gander, Nfld. to more than 6,000 international travellers in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when American airspace was closed and 38 passenger planes were forced to land in the remote east coast town.

Playwrights Irene Sankoff and David Hein gathered the material for the play in interviews culled from a trip to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It took no small amount of daring to come up with a play about those strange, jittery days, let alone a musical.

But what an excellent piece it is. And while some characters and events depicted have been altered for dramatic purposes, the play is, in its way, a fine piece of journalism, telling a single true story from multiple perspectives in a compelling way.

It is also an unabashed love letter to Canada, Canadian culture, and, in the case of this particular production, Canadian performing talent.

MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTO</p>

MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTO

Each of the dozen actors onstage play multiple characters. There are no weak links in this cast, but especially notable are Saccha Dennis as Hannah, a mother desperate to locate her New York firefighter son, Steffi DiDomenicantonio as plucky Rogers cable TV news reporter Janice, Kevin Viddal particularly funny as Bob, an urban New York hipster nonplussed by Newfoundland's trusting ways, Eliza-Jane Scott as Beverly, an American Airlines pilot whose ordered life is shaken by the tumult of the event, Jack Noseworthy as Kevin, a gay L.A. businessman whose fear of small-town prejudice proves hilariously unfounded, and George Masswohl, low-key-magnificent as Claude, the sanguine mayor of Gander who finds himself in the eye of a logistical hurricane. As Beulah, a Gander woman juggling multiple responsibilities with steadfast humanity, Lisa Horner is the heart of the show,

It is important to note this production is directed by Christopher Ashley, the man who won a Tony for the Broadway production: This is stage direction of the highest order. The show moves at a ferociously paced clip, with 12 actors on stage most of the time, using little more than 12 chairs and a few tables as props atop a turntable that accommodates invisible scene changes. The actors are moving throughout the play's 110 minutes with the intricacy of a close-order drill, but you don't see the deft physical choreography going on because the eye is focused elsewhere. This is the stuff of a magic act, and the effect is, well ... magical.

The play itself has the forward drive of a juggernaut, powered by a six-piece band onstage delivering appropriate Celtic flavour when called for, especially in the rollicking midpoint number Screech In (depicting the traditional rum-infused welcome to the island), yet also accommodating of a full-bore Broadway ballad, as in Dennis's moving performance of the plaintive I Am Here.

It is surprisingly funny too, in a cathartic, laughter-through-the-tears kind of way. The show doesn't shy away from depicting some of the darkness, such as the Islamophobia attached to an Egyptian chef (Ali Momen). But the overall tone is celebration, of kindness, of generosity and openness to our fellow humans.

Come From Away is the show we all need right now.

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Read more by Randall King.

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