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Theater review: Come From Away at the Peace Center

Theater review: Come From Away at the Peace Center

Bruce: Not to beat around the bush, but I thought Come From Away was the best offering of the Broadway series at Greenville, South Carolina's Peace Center since Hamilton. What was your takeaway from Come From Away?

Edwin: I think you’re right. Much as I liked The Book of Mormon in early March, the energy of Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s creation — which I went into almost completely blind — drew me in early and never really let up for the next 100 minutes. I’ve never seen a show move this well while also getting so much information and characterization across. Is there a Tony for Best Economical Musical?

Bruce: It did win the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, but it was beat out by Dear Evan Hanson in all the other categories — a show the Peace Center has nearly sold out already for July. Any other year, I think Come From Away would have been a shoo-in. It's deceptively simple yet groundbreaking in many ways. And it turns a national tragedy — the 9/11 terror attacks — into a platform to celebrate human decency and connection.

Edwin: Indeed. After a pleasant set-up depicting the various aspects of life in the Newfoundland town of Gander, the talented ensemble cast smoothly morphs from locals into the passengers of an American Airlines flight, one of many planes diverted to the nearby international airport for undefined reasons. The travails of their extended confinement in the cabin are amusing and relatable, but once they’re allowed to disembark and are welcomed into the community by its warm residents, the fun really begins.

Bruce: The song "38 Planes," followed by "Blankets and Bedding," neatly summarize the set-up. But I just can't say enough about that ensemble cast, just a dozen people playing town folk, passengers and a couple pilots, many with distinct personalities and emotionally rich story lines. Has there ever been a cast so talented and yet so appealingly unglamorous? Come From Away really underlines the "ordinary" in "extraordinary."

Edwin: The fluidity with which they switch between multiple characters is stunning. Wishing for a figure to return is like hoping for the weather to change in Western North Carolina: Just wait a few minutes and the desire will be fulfilled. During the merging of these two “sides” into one, were there individuals who stood out to you? Or is it a true ensemble in which there aren’t any stars that outshine the rest?

Becky Gulsvig (center) as pilot Beverley Bass in  Come From Away.

Becky Gulsvig (center) as pilot Beverley Bass in Come From Away.

Bruce: Becky Gulsvig, who plays real-life American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, gets the show's standout solo, "Me and the Sky," and she delivers it beautifully. It's not surprising that that role was the awards magnet in New York. And townies Beulah (Julie Johnson), who runs a local school, and Claude (Kevin Carolan), the mayor, are memorable as the yin and yang of Gander: She's the vulnerable heart; he's the comic relief.

Edwin: I was taken with Emily Walton as plucky new TV reporter Janice, whose brief yet informative dispatches smartly keep the action rolling and on track, and James Earl Jones II as Bob, a NYC resident whose resistance to the oddball “Newfoundland nice” melts in strong comedic fashion. But refreshingly, neither are overly showy.

Bruce: What's remarkable in all cases is the conciseness of the storytelling. Some scenes are two or three lines long and tell you all you need to know. None last more than a minute or so. 

Edwin: It’s as if Sankoff and Hein conducted focus groups on what people don’t like about musicals and trimmed all the fat. So many important details are delivered in as few lines as necessary, yet I feel confident I could write a decent character sketch of at least a dozen individuals. And how about that live band?

Bruce: I loved the band, a generous eight-piece ensemble. With its Celtic riffs and instrumentation, Western NC audiences ought to find the music both homey and toe-tapping. In fact, a lot of Gander reminded me of Asheville: the animal-rescue story line, its response to a jittery gay couple, its folksy but stubborn town politicians. But I think it's part of the show's populist artistry to invite the audience to believe their own best impulses are reflected in the residents of Gander. The soul of the show is its unstated but clear argument that face-to-face interactions unite disparities and encourage goodness. It's a feel-good story in a dark wrapper worthy of Frank Capra.

Edwin: Unlike Emilio Estevez’s film The Public, I think Come From Away earns that Capra comparison. I was already interested in visiting Newfoundland after seeing the whimsical film The Grand Seduction nearly five years ago, but now I’m really keen. How about you?

Bruce: Been there, actually. Back in the late 1970s, when flights to Europe had to refuel in Gander, I was a passenger heading to Madrid, and we all deplaned and visited the terminal for a brief respite. Now I wish we’d been able to stopover and meet the residents. I think the entire Greenville audience felt the same at the end, as the standing ovation seemed more spontaneous and enthusiastic than usual — fueled in part by the best post-curtain call coda since Mamma Mia. Newfoundland should have tourist reps in the lobby after the show.

Come From Away runs through April 21 at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. For tickets, visit peacecenter.org.

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(Photos by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of the Peace Center)

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