“COME FROM AWAY,” through Nov. 11, Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main (801-355-2787 or artsaltlake.org); running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (no intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — If you've long suspected that our northern neighbors are nicer than the rest of us (further north: Canada, not Idaho), then the touring production of the Broadway musical "Come From Away" has come to town to prove these suspicions right.
"Come From Away," playing at the Eccles through Nov. 11, is a song-and-dance musical with an unlikely setting (Gander, Newfoundland), improbable stage characters (average, mostly middle-aged folks dressed in jeans) and an unusual story (one that seems better suited for a TV documentary). But somehow, this big-hearted show, with a book, music and lyrics by the Canadian husband-and-wife writing team David Hein and Irene Sankoff, not only worked, it worked quite beautifully, as the cheering audience on Tuesday's opening night production — well-timed for election night — attested.
The main reason for this 2017 Tony Award-winning musical's success is its structure. There are no single stars in "Come From Away"; instead the show largely gives equal time to the 12 members of the talented touring company who played a variety of roles. The story zipped along at a breakneck speed, with actors changing roles seamlessly and the eight-piece band onstage keeping the infectious music and tender story moving along.
Set over the days following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the story tells the true tale of the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, who housed and fed some 7,000 stranded strangers after their planes were grounded. While the musical addressed the herculean job of taking care of that many people, it focused mainly on the many small kindnesses enacted over those next few days.
Those kindnesses — a local woman telling dumb jokes to distract a mother worrying about her fireman son, a town mayor planning an impromptu community cookout to entertain the castaways, an animal lover defying orders and caring for the creatures stowed away in the planes' undercarriage — somehow became not just generous acts for those specific people, but warm embraces for everyone in the theater.
After 17 years, our collective memory is starting to fade regarding our initial reactions to 9/11. "Come From Away" put audiences back in those days, reminding us of that deeply unsettled feeling, the shapeless fear that something important was lost and the longing to just be home with loved ones. And while the production showed that this tragedy in many ways brought out our (or at least Canada's) better natures, the musical, while exuberant, didn't let us forget that it was also immediately in the aftermath of those attacks that we allowed our fears to turn on Middle Easterners and anyone who appeared a threat, no matter their innocence.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt's simple set — chairs that became plane seats, bar stools, bus benches and much more — was enhanced by the cool tones of an abstract backdrop and lighting by Howell Binkley. A few well-placed sound effects by Gareth Owen helped transition the characters from America to Canada to the air.Comment on this story
But all in all, this was the cast's show. While James Earl Jones II brought the house down as Bob with his comic inflection and a raised eyebrow, Christine Toy Johnson charmed as Diane, Chamblee Ferguson endeared himself as the hapless Nick and Andrew Samonsky and Nick Duckart well embodied the "Kevins," singling out any one performance feels a little unfair. This was a true ensemble, and no one part of it was significantly better than the whole.
Which isn't a bad metaphor for "Come From Away's" most important theme: that no matter where we all come from, we need each other to become our best selves — not a bad reminder for Election Day.
Content advisory: "Come From Away" contains some strong language.