Junkyard Dog Productions, Rodney Rigby and others. Her Majesty’s Theatre. 29 March 2023
Unless you live near Perth or Canberra where this production of Come From Away is going next, you better come from away to Adelaide for the greatest, most uplifting and emotionally charged musical you’ll ever see. All the more ebullient as all the characters are based on real people and events from these most extraordinary five days in Gander.
President Bush closed down American airspace immediately following the 9/11 bombings by Boeings. The compliant Canadians next door, presumably sensing less risk and having more compassion, accepted the US-bound traffic. Thirty-eight airplanes with 6,579 people on board landed within hours in Gander, Newfoundland. Gander International was ideal as it’s far from anywhere and huge, having been the re-fueling port for trans-Atlantic travel before jet planes could make the journey on one tank. Gander had a population of about ten thousand on the day over 20 years ago.
We begin with an energetic introduction to the good citizens of Gander going about their business. We are introduced to the strange Newfie accent described as “the lilting bastard child of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, American and French Canadian,” betraying the historical milueu of the island known as “The Rock.” Talented Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book, music and lyrics) convey the charm before the storm with alacrity. Then the news and it dawns on the townfolk, OMG, what do we do? And without hesitation they spring into hyper-hospitality garnering sandwiches and toilet paper from the entire region and turning every community hall into a hostel. The school bus strike was put on ice and the ice rink turned into a walk-in refrigerator. “You would have done it for us,” they said at the good-byes, refusing any money. The extraordinary things these ordinary people did is the stuff of legend.
The aforementioned historical milieu is matched in the music (Michael Tyack – musical director). The pace is set by seven musicians in the wings rendering familiar Newfie pub fare filled with Celtic rifts augmented by symbiotic sounds from other cultures. Director Christopher Ashley creates non-stop action as the cast of twelve switch from eager townsfolk to temperamental passengers plus air crew (40-something characters!) and back again in a snap. The jet speed was made possible by a simple set comprising chairs and tables that in a blink, and almost unnoticeably, are rearranged by the cast from mayor’s office to aircraft to bus to bunk bedding.
I have been to Gander and the museum is full of mementos including scores of thank you notes from passengers and dozens of letters from national leaders thanking the Newfies for taking care of their citizens. What is forgotten is that while the geese and ganders got on with the job, the passengers had no idea what happened, why they were diverted to nowhere they knew, and had no contact with loved ones (very few people had mobile phones then). They hadn’t showered, were stuck on planes in the air and on the ground for up to 15 hours and were grumpy when not plied with alcohol. It wasn’t smooth sailing but the way to handle this was to invite the “come from aways” into their homes and hold a BBQ at the pub complete with a Newfie initiation ceremony including kissing a cod.
The Newfie characters wear their hearts on their sleeves with helpfulness; their passenger characters eventually soften and let down their guard and suspicion. The superb cast handle this heartwarming transition from untrusting to grateful with gumption. There are a dozen true stories weaved into the situation. The middle age Texan woman and Englishman who crave to canoodle. The woman who can’t reach her fireman son in New York. The Rabbi requiring kosher cuisine. The Moslem man who is repeatedly humiliated, all the more poignant as he is head chef for a chain of international hotels. People from 100 countries were grounded and the kaleidoscope of cultural collision was a joy to behold.
In an outstanding cast, there is an outstanding performance of an outstanding real life character. Australian Zoe Gertz plays Beverley Bass who was the first female captain of a commercial plane (with American Airlines) and also diverted on the job to Gander. Sankoff and Hein were so impressed as to give her character an inspirational song of attaining your dreams against all of the odds. Gertz exudes a sense of command and sings pulchritudinously and precisely with thrilling percipience.
Having succumbed to Newfie hospitality myself, my heart was in my throat the entire time. It is so pleasurable to see a positive dramatic situation based on the real deal. And did I say it was fun!
Musical theatre will rarely be any better than this and the standing ovation was instantaneous. Ten stars and triple Bravo!
When: 30 Mar to 29 Apr
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre