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Come From Away finally giving Montreal a taste of Newfoundland hospitality


When the CEO of Newfoundland’s Gander airport was approached by husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein with plans for a musical about Operation Yellow Ribbon, that heroic Canadian initiative that involved Ganderites giving aid and shelter to thousands of passengers stranded by the events of 9/11, his response was: “You’re writing a play about giving people sandwiches? Good luck with that.”

Would that we all had a slice of such luck. Since its modest opening in Oakville, Ont., in 2013, Come From Away has gone on to become the longest-running Canadian musical on Broadway (The Drowsy Chaperone previously held that title), picking up ecstatic notices and major awards (including a Tony for director Christopher Ashley and an Olivier for best new musical) and achieving sold-out houses everywhere it’s gone. There are currently five major productions of it traversing the globe, including the Broadway Across Canada/Evenko co-production playing from Tuesday to Dec. 1 at Place des Arts, the musical’s first staging in Montreal. There’s also a film adaptation in the works.

Of course, being a Canadian musical, the niceness quotient is off the charts, which is only to be expected given the subject: the 7,000 or so passengers who, for five days, nearly doubled Gander’s population, and were overwhelmed by the townsfolk’s indefatigable generosity and hospitality. Come From Away bursts with communal spirit, hoedowns, blooming friendships and romances, and quirky initiation ceremonies (namely, Newfoundland’s famous “screeching in,” which involves swigging weapons-grade rum and kissing a cod).

Those looking for a bit of grit in their musicals can rest assured that there’s a bleak streak in there, too. This mostly centres on the experiences of one character, Ali, an Egyptian Muslim, who is initially eyed with suspicion by passengers and their hosts, and later undergoes a humiliating ceremony of his own at the hands of the authorities.

Speaking from a hotel in Boston, Nick Duckart, who plays Ali, explains that the Ganderites “were just very scared — not only towards Muslim people or people from the Middle East — because, like the people on the planes, they didn’t know what was going on. All they knew was that some people had hijacked a plane and committed these heinous acts. So there was fear that there would be more terrorists on these planes on the tarmac. The way the Ganderites and the plane people initially treat Ali is very honest in its depiction of what the Muslim experience was on and around 9/11.”

As with the rest of the 12-strong cast, Duckart plays other (mostly true-life) characters, including one of “the two Kevins,” a gay couple who find their relationship under strain during the unexpected stopover.

Although a concert version of the musical played in Gander in 2016, “this company hasn’t had the opportunity to go there,” says Duckart, “but we’ve gotten the opportunity to have Gander come to us. We’ve met all the real-life characters that we portray, including many of the plane people. When we opened in Seattle last year, they took our opening-night bows with us, which was very special.”

In another example of art mirroring life, this cast has been screeched in by, among other Ganderites, Oz Fudge, the town’s law officer and one of the main characters in the musical.

One particularly plum role in Come From Away is the remarkable Captain Beverley Bass, played by Australian actress Marika Aubrey, making her North American debut with this production.

“What makes Beverley’s story particularly interesting is that she was the first female captain for American Airlines,” explains Aubrey, also speaking from Boston. “She was quite a trailblazer in her profession, in the sense that aviation has always been a very much male-dominated industry.”

In the song Me and the Sky, Aubrey explains, “Beverley Bass’s life story is condensed into four minutes and 19 seconds. It tells about how she started out wanting to fly as a young kid, and then started flying Bonanzas, these tiny airplanes in which she was flying dead bodies for morticians. (The song continues) all the way through to her joining American Airlines and becoming the first female captain and having an all-female crew, which made headlines because that was a really big deal at the time. It’s more common now, but it’s still not run-of-the-mill.”

Despite uncomfortable moments like those involving Ali, and a fraught storyline involving the friendship between the mothers of two New York firefighters, Come From Away is demonstrably not as morbid as the prospect of a 9/11 musical might suggest. In fact, says Duckart, “the way we like to promote the show is that it’s really a 9/12 musical. The story does talk about what’s arguably the most tragic and horrible event in America’s history, but we are not focusing on the sadness and tragedy around that day. (It says) now we’re going to tell a beautiful story that will inspire you and remind you of the human capacity for kindness.”

“We don’t really have to hammer it home,” says Aubrey, referring to the largely unspoken horror of 9/11. “One of the things I admire most about how (Sankoff and Hein) have constructed the show is that they’re very aware that everyone in the audience is not only experiencing our narrative, but somewhere in the back of their minds they’re thinking about what they went through that week, where they were when the planes went into the buildings, how it impacted their friends and community, and so on. It’s very cathartic for audience members, but it mainly tells them about a time of kindness and generosity and joy even in the darkest of situations.”

AT A GLANCE

Come From Away plays from Tuesday, Nov. 26 to Sunday, Dec. 1 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts. Tickets: $48.60 to $216.65. Call 514-842-2112 or see placedesarts.com .

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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