How often can you say you’ve seen an ensemble piece? It’s a term that gets bandied about to praise large casts, but inevitably our system of criticism and awards consideration is designed to single people out — to designate their work as something particularly special, no matter how earnestly the winners call out the rest of their cast and crew.
Come From Away, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through Jan. 6 as a stop on its first national tour, is that rare and wondrous thing: a true ensemble piece, one that allows every member of its dozen-strong cast a chance to shine, while also being utterly dependent on the sum of its moving parts to drive home its glorious, life-affirming message.
The subject matter is perhaps an odd choice for a musical. Come From Away is set in the town of Gander, Newfoundland, on Sept. 11, 2001, and the days following, when this small Canadian outpost provided food, shelter, and comfort to 7,000 airline passengers stranded there after terrorist attacks led to the closure of American air space for the first time in history. The musical is based on true stories, the lives and connections forged by real people and collected by creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein while attending the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in Gander.
The music is an ever-present force in the show, which runs for an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. Musicians playing folk instruments like the Irish flute, fiddle, and bodhran are nestled in the corners of the stage, just within the audience’s sight lines — an essential part of the action. The score, which draws heavily on Newfoundland’s music traditions, is alternately wistful and buoyant, energizing and heart-rending. Its essence, which feels both timeless and completely different from what Broadway’s heard before, is the perfect backdrop for a story of pure, unadulterated generosity.
But the performers and their seamless work as a unit make the show truly remarkable. Spinning and stomping through an effective array of tableaus, the cast moves swiftly between a dizzying collection of roles as actors bounce from Newfoundlander to British businessman to Texas mother to dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker to gay Angeleno to Egyptian immigrant. The skill required to move between these accents and their attached physicality is staggering; no character, however briefly they figure in the story, ever feels like a caricature or a thin sketch. Each moment feels deeply, thoughtfully considered, and the actors transition between them with such ease it feels more like a magic trick than a performance. I could tell you James Earl Jones III’s Bob is funny and irreverent in the moments we need it most; that Becky Gulsvig’s Beverley is inspiring and powerfully emotional singing “Me and the Sky”; that Chamblee Ferguson’s British Nick is wry, warm, and achingly romantic — but it seems unfair to single anyone out. There may only be 12 actors up there, but the stage feels full of the richness and complexities of the 7,000 people who nearly doubled this town’s population in the course of one night.
Beowulf Boritt’s set design features a wooden backdrop that gives the actors a blank slate to work with, and sans the projections or large moving sets of many musicals, the show feels more immediate than you might expect. Airplanes, raucous barrooms, and crowded school gyms feel utterly alive and present through the sheer force of the storytelling and inventive staging.
Come From Away debuted in a Broadway season that saw the far buzzier Dear Evan Hansen capture the zeitgeist, and it’s easy to understand why. While both are profoundly moving works of art, Come From Away can’t easily be packaged into television performances or excised hit songs. It is a beautifully woven tapestry that needs each of its carefully considered threads to fully render its picture. (Which is why the idea of the show being interrupted with an intermission is impossible.) And for that reason, it might actually be the deeper, more moving piece.
I can’t imagine a musical we need more right now than Come From Away. In a time rife with division and tragedies that regularly leave people wrestling with grief, loss, and the capacity for human cruelty, Come From Away is a show about the innate goodness of humanity. Its ensemble structure helps express a message of togetherness and kindness rather than one of individual achievement and exceptionalism. The selflessness demonstrated by the people of Gander — and the warm temporary community built by the townspeople and the stranded passengers — will leave a lump in your throat.
To know that these stories are true, that people really do have the capacity to be this good, this kind, this decent, reminds us of the things we need to remember most. That was underscored on Los Angeles’ opening night, when the curtain call brought some of the tale’s real figures onto the stage alongside their fictionalized counterparts in a joyous explosion of dance and goodwill.
As constructed here and told by a funny, chameleonic, staggeringly talented group of actors, the uplifting story is not just a spark of light in a dark time — it’s a spotlight of blazingly bright proportions. A