Review: ‘Come From Away’ mesmerizes Richmond with remarkable true story

Illustration by Matt Bennett

Zahra Ndirangu, Contributing Writer

Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Tony Award-winning musical “Come From Away” brought the incredible true story of human connection and grief to the Altria Theater from Feb. 1 to 6. 

The show suspended the audience for almost two hours as the energy level continued to rise throughout the entirety of the show. The musical attracted all ages as VCU students, families and elders gathered to experience “Come From Away.”

Rarely is there a musical that connects so deeply with the human experience, and “Come From Away” possesses that quality. The energy in the Altria Theater was palpable, and the audience buzzed for the entirety of the show, giving multiple standing ovations. In the humorous moments, the room filled with uproarious laughter – in the heavy moments of the show, one could hear a pin drop. 

The show details the five grueling days following the tragic events of 9/11 as citizens of Gander, Newfoundland attempt to house and feed 6,579 stranded passengers they dubbed “come from aways” when planes diverted to Canada after the United States airspace shuts down. 

Canadian theater producer Michael Rubinoff first dreamt of “Come From Away” in 2009 and the writing process began soon after, according to Sankoff and Hein in an interview

Rubinoff liked Sankoff and Hein’s previous work, “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding,” and approached the husband and wife duo about writing the music for the show after hearing the story of Gander and its citizens, Sankoff said in an interview

In an industry primarily occupied by movie-to-musical adaptations, jukebox musicals and revivals, “Come From Away” brings something unique and necessary to the theater scene with its original story and proves there is both success and longevity in telling stories of humanity.

Sankoff and Hein visited the town of Gander in 2011, collected interviews and anecdotes from the town’s residents and workshopped a production with the Canadian Musical Theatre Project in 2012, according to the couple in an interview.

From the town’s mayor Claude Elliott to broadcast journalist Janice Mosher, the characters of the musical are all based on real Newfoundlanders who aided the passengers during those five days, emphasizing the humanity of the story.

The musical’s eight-year creative process soon paid off. “Come From Away” earned seven Tony Awards nominations in the 2017 Broadway season, including the coveted Best Musical award. The show won for Best Direction of a Musical for Broadway director Christopher Ashley. 

The musical’s North American tour production dazzled Richmond from the first rhythmic beat of “Welcome to the Rock” until the final chords of “Finale” and manages to bring both heart and hilarity to its heavy subject matter. 

“Come From Away” is truly an ensemble show as the cast of 18 electrifies the stage with every number. All of its members seamlessly transform from playing not only Newfoundlanders, but also the almost 7,000 “strays” who came to the town. The cast uses hats, jackets and other articles of clothing to signify changing their characters. 

New York City-based actress Becky Gulsvig is enchanting as pilot Beverly Bass. She returned to the role after playing it in the Broadway production in 2019 and replaced original Broadway cast member Jenn Colella. Her voice soars as she belts in Bass’s mid-show number “Me and the Sky” while the character recounts her life as the first female captain of American Airlines. 

Aaron Michael Ray is a standout in the dual role of Kevin J. and Ali. Ray. He brings not only heart, but humor to both characters. Ray’s status as a standby in the company, an off-stage performer who performs when needed, proves the talents of backstage performers called to go on at a moment’s notice. 

Christopher Ashley’s Tony-winning direction and Kelly Devine’s staging effortlessly takes audience members from planes, bars, buses and schools without a single set change. Instead, the cast simply moves around chairs on an otherwise bare stage. 

The heartbeat of the show is Sankoff and Hein’s music and lyrics with its folk-rock score. The show’s eight musicians occupy the stage with the actors throughout the piece, rather than the tradition of performing in the pit of the theater. 

The band’s talents shine in the final “Screech Out,” performed after the cast has given their bows and the musicians take the stage front and center. 

Seeing the musicians live on the stage brings a truly thrilling element to the performance for both those who have heard the original Broadway cast recording, and those who heard the show’s music for the first time that night. 

“Come From Away” brings to Richmond a true story of the importance of community during a time of tragedy. The show thrills audiences, leaving them not only encouraged by the story, but also with a love for one’s own community and the people around them.

(From left to right) Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Harter Clingman and the rest of the cast of Come From Away perform on stage. Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

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