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‘Come From Away’ Combines the Best of Humanity and Live Musical Theatre

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The terror attacks on September 11, 2001 were arguably the greatest devastation in our nation’s history. Following that day, millions of people grieved both in and outside the nation. In the 18 years since the calamity, thousands of painful stories have been told, each one breaking our hearts a little more.

In contrast to the gloom and total darkness that most associate with September 11, the Broadway musical “Come From Away,” playing at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, approaches what happened on that day in a different light. Focusing on a group of passengers whose planes are diverted to a Newfoundland  small town called Gander following the closure of all U.S. airspace. Hundreds of people from all around the world were welcomed to Gander as if it were their own home. “Come From Away” tells the story of warm embrace on one of the coldest days in American history.

This musical serves as a reminder that regardless of your nationality, sexuality, or race, we are all human and we each grieve in our own way. As Claude Elliott, the actual former mayor of Gander put it during a post-performance panel discussion, “What happened on that day was the worst of humanity and what we saw in Gander was the best.”

The complexity of grief is most captivatingly characterized in the show by the story of the two Kevins (a couple who funnily enough have the same name). Upon arrival in Gnader, one insists on locking himself away, ignoring the situation and the anguish surrounding him. The second embraces the circumstances he must face and learns to open up, making life-long friends as a result.

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The character of Helen, the mother of a Brooklyn firefighter, who hasn’t heard from her son since the attack, captures the distress that so many felt that day from the uncertainty of their loved one’s safety. Fearing the worst, Helen remains deeply concerned and constantly on edge, constantly waiting for a call from her son. Before long Helen finds sympathy and comfort in the form of a new friend, Beulah, a citizen of Gander, with a heart full of corny jokes and compassion to distract Helen from her anxiety. This extraordinary friendship is portrayed beautifully by Julie Johnson as Beulah and Danielle K Thomas as Helen.

“Come From Away” succeeds immensely in addressing the impact of grief brought on by 9/11, in addition to the expected narrative an unexpected perspective is brought forth. The viewpoint of Ali (portrayed by Nick Duckart ) is introduced, an Egyptian man who is traveling for business. Initially, Ali is marked by several of the characters as “suspicious” on account of his relative silence following their arrival in Gander. Rather than assume that his quietness is due to lack of knowledge in the English language or simply fatigue (as they do for several other foreign passengers), Ali is seen as a threat and as a result is pulled aside by security twice.  “Come From Away” is unique because it takes the time to tell Ali’s side of the story. The side that describes the generally dehumanizing and humiliating process that is often fueled by racial profiling and prejudice. The side of the story that is usually ignored by main-stream media.

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Though this performance goes above and beyond with plot progression and character development, the musical element of this musical is somewhat lacking. The opening scene is set with an upbeat number “Welcome to the Rock,” that introduces us to “the rock,” a tiny island on the east coast of Canada “where everyone is nice, but it’s never nice above”. However, the show’s opening number is one of the only two memorable songs in the show (the other being “Something’s Missing,” a rather sad, hymn-like song).

The likely explanation for the sub-par songs would be the lack of variety in the composition. Unlike various other successful Broadway musicals such as “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Wicked,” “Come From Away” lacks any actual solo numbers or even simple duets, causing the effect of total homogeneity with each song bleeding into the next. The constant blend of voices gives one the feeling of attending an elementary school play rather than a Broadway production. Although it is worth noting that the constant harmony somewhat reflects the community that is built between the characters, the show’s score still leaves much to be desired.

Despite a few musical flaws, the stunning performances by the actors and a truly touching plot full of love, loss, and lighthearted jokes, makes this musical absolutely worth seeing and I highly encourage you to do so.

VOXers had the opportunity to attend the opening night performance of “Come From Away,” thanks to the generosity of Most Valuable Kids of Greater Atlanta and Broadway in Atlanta.

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