Come From Away the Musical, tells the true story of what transpired when 38 planes were ordered to land unexpectedly in the small town of Gander, Canada, in the week following the September 11 attacks in America. The show is based on the real experiences of Gander residents and the 7,000 confused and anxious stranded passengers that were cared for by these townsfolk, and has been welcomed as a ‘cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest times’.
It was a privilege to attend the media presentation ahead of the official opening, where Australian producer, Rodger Rigby, shared a detailed account of the Come from Away journey. From a Canadian High School musical to a Broadway smash hit that details a unique account involving one of the most significant moments in modern history. ‘The people of Gander have been able to see their story, themselves and snippets of what they did, immortalised in an award-winning Broadway musical that broke box office records’, he said.
Out of 38 planes that landed in Gander, 100 nations were represented, including several Australians. Three Australian passengers that were actually diverted to Gander on 9/11/2001 were even in attendance at this media event presentation. They shared their own personal experience and validating story authenticity through expressions of ongoing gratitude towards the Gander community for the care and support they received at a difficult and confusing time.
A brief introduction by resident director, Liam MciLwain, led into performances of two numbers from the show: Me and the Sky, detailing the true story of the first female captain for American Airlines, Beverly Bass, played by the energetic and delightful Zoe Gertz; and Welcome to the Rock.
We were then given the opportunity to speak with cast members about the show and get their take on what audiences expect.
‘It’s a beautiful story, it’s a beautiful show and I think especially right now the story of kindness and community is so needed’, shares performer Kolby Kindle. ‘Coming back and doing the show after the pandemic, it has a different feeling to it and gives it new perspective and meaning.’
The set is simple and abstracted, forested by tall timber trees with pieces of wooden furniture scattered across the stage. Changes are made by actors manipulation of the space, adjusting and adapting the furniture. ‘We create the environment’, explains Kolby, ‘which I think is the appeal and spectacle of the show. We have these chairs that we make into a plane, we make into a town hall, we make into a bus… that’s what the audience loves is seeing, how we create these situations and environments with just chairs.‘
The Australian cast includes Zoe Gertz, Sharriese Hamilton, Douglas Hansell, Kolby Kindle, Phillip Lowe, Simon Maiden, Sarah Morrison, Joseph Naim, Emma Powell, Katrina Retallick, Kellie Rode and Gene Weygandt, an exceptionally strong ensemble who are on stage for almost every moment of the production. In most cases players have a primary role based on on a single person, with additional multiple roles often based on a hybrid of personal experiences drawn from research and interviews to help tell this story.
‘I play Hannah and others’, explains Sharriese Hamilton, as we interviewed her following the performance. ‘Hannah is a mother, she’s a come from away and her son is a firefighter [in New York], and one of the first responders when the buildings were hit by the planes. Throughout the show she is trying to get a hold of him and she strikes up and develops beautiful friendship with Buela, who also has a son that is a firefighter in Gander.’
Sharriese is one of three American cast members performing in the show alongside the predominantly Australian cast, which includes the powerhouse talent of Emma Powell.
‘My character is Buela and she’s based on two women, but also all the helpers… and they basically made sandwiches! And when writers went to the Ganderites and said they wanted to make a musical about that time, they asked ‘you want to write a musical about making sandwiches?’ Because to them, that was as simple as it was.’
Everyday people are certainly the focus of this production and this permeates every element of the show’s design and presentation. Upon entering the theatre we were immediately drawn into the theatre space, which appeared to meld into the audience space through the use of design and colours that are predominantly earthy based browns and textured wood grains. Production values are on full display with lighting attached to elements of the set and infusing with the story. The cast are dressed authentically as everyday characters, who may well have been passengers on those flights, and even orchestra members who perform amidst the cast on stage are kitted out in everyday ‘civvies’.
‘What I think people will find special about the show in this venue, the Capitol Theatre, is that we’ve tried to make the show feel as intimate as possible… it’s all about bringing the audience as close to the story as possible, because this story is told by regular people. It’s a simple story about community and kindness, and so we want there to be a really strong connection between audience and performer’, explains resident director Liam MciLwain. ‘It’s a story about ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.’
Directed by Tony Award winner Christopher Ashley (Diana, Memphis), choreographed by Olivier Award Winner Kelly Devine (Diana, Rock of Ages, Rocky), with music supervision by Ian Eisendrath (A Christmas Story, Diana), scenic design by Beowulf Boritt (Act One, Rock of Ages, Be More Chill), costume design by Toni-Leslie James (Jelly’s Last Jam), lighting design by Howell Binkley (Jersey Boys, Hamilton), and sound design by Gareth Owen (Diana, A Bronx Tale). Come From Away is currently playing the Capitol Theatre in Sydney, and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing the entire show with great anticipation.
About the author
Karen Illesca is a wife and mother and is extremely passionate about all things arts. She has worked in and around theatre and film, in drama and music education and has a decades worth of experience working in Marketing Communications in the tertiary sector. Earlier this year she launched a brand-new company in partnership with Phillippa Webb – 2Kats Productions – who currently have their first screen arts project, the Whirld Web Series, in postproduction.