Magic at La Jolla Playhouse: When 9-11 Goosed Gander

Where were you on 9-11? We all remember.

Thousands of us were in the air over North America when four jetliners were captured by terrorists and deliberately crashed into prime targets. Officials on the edge of panic decreed that the rest of the air traffic would be considered potential bombs and should land immediately.

Come From Away, a new musical in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, tells what happened at one landing site, the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, when 38 international airliners suddenly dropped onto its vacant runways.

Once a major refueling base for transatlantic flights but now as deserted a desert gas station bypassed by the freeway, Gander was asked to absorb 7,000 sudden refugees for an unknown duration, nearly doubling its population. Strangers from all over the world, speaking a tangle of languages and clutching at a conglomeration of clashing cultures, peered through the stress at each other…

Caesar Aamayoa, Geno Carr, Joel Hatch, Astrid Van Wieren, Allison Spratt Pearce and Petrina Browley in La Jolla Playhouse Come From Away. Kevin Berne Photo

Caesar Aamayoa, Geno Carr, Joel Hatch, Astrid Van Wieren, Allison Spratt Pearce and Petrina Browley, left to right, in La Jolla Playhouse Come From Away. Kevin Berne Photo

And got along great! It turned out to be a five-day party that changed many a life and affirmed triumphantly that, as another victim years before pleaded, we can just all get along.

Things worked out so well that there was a 10th anniversary reunion for townsfolk and former passengers that sounds like an even better party. And at that reunion were Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a connubial Canadian music-theatre team, interviewing everybody in sight – long interviews, maybe four hours each – for the piece that became the 100-minute show that is so splendidly debuting now in the LJP’s Potiker Theatre.

With just 12 charmed actors and a stage full of assorted chairs, tables and boxes, director Christopher Ashley tells the dozens of stories distilled by the authors, with a galloping can-do spirit that joyously celebrates the source and dazzles the rapt audience. Who would have thought that so much content could be whisked together without losing either coherence or inspiration?

That collection of junk furniture, like the piles and piles of Toni-Leslie James costumes, may look like the yield of a lightning raid on a thrift store but all is pulled together by Ashley’s staging magic (and Howell Binkley’s pinpoint lighting design) to evoke nearly everything needed for the story. If Beowulf Boritt’s textured, neutral scenery doesn’t really say Newfoundland, that’s probably because I don’t speak the language.

The text has an inevitable air about it. These are the authors’ selected tales but countless others beckon. Example: As the famished passengers can at last tackle a lavish spread of hearty homemade fare, a slim, dark man stands morosely to the side. An orthodox rabbi, he explains, required to keep kosher. Somebody helps set up a special kitchen near the school gym, we’re told, but there’s no return to the story. Later, as sanitation becomes a problem at the school, six of “the world’s top cardiologists,” on their way to a conference somewhere, step up and don rubber gloves to cope, with no further updates. Choices must be made.

Ashley sets a dizzy pace but it serves to confirm what must have been going on in those frenetic days. And many stories do get examined to satisfaction. The school bus drivers pause in their strike. A way is forced through the red tape to feed the pets still in shipping crates. The gay issue is cautiously raised – and turns out to be no issue at all. Love comes and love dies. There is wrangling and fear and desperation and grief, but it all subsides into a wondrous good will.

Sankoff and Hein display a novelist’s grasp of their material and how it’s woven with words, but they also wrote the music.

An intense, folk-flavored band of eight plays the rousing songs that seem always just finished, just starting or full speed ahead. With a couple of exceptions, nothing sticks as a highlight but all of the music feels comfortably invigorating and supportive. There are welcome songs, adjustment songs, farewell songs and so forth, usually featuring the entire company and once, for “Screech In,” five members of the band.

Joel Hatch, as the mayor who never quite becomes ridiculous, leads that one, which features the ceremony involved in “becoming a true Newfounlander,” complete with the kissing of the cod and an generous extra helping of Kelly Devine’s boisterous, inventive clog choreography.

Jenn Colella in Come From Away at La Jolla Playhouse. Kevin Berne Photo

Jenn Colella in Come From Away at La Jolla Playhouse. Kevin Berne Photo

The musical highlight, perhaps, is “Me and the Sky,” an immensely moving autobiographical narration by Jenn Colella, as an American Airlines pilot. Her story, of pushing to the top of a male-dominated field while raising a family, without losing her bliss for each, becomes not only a triumphant hymn of individual success but also a banner for the positive glow of the entire extraordinary show.

Colella plays a couple of less lofty roles, too, in the spirit of this story where so much is pulled off by so few. As does Rodney Hicks, called upon among other duties to confront several stereotypes: the black stud, the African refugee fearful of the busses and (Salvation Army) uniforms and the street-wise kid who worries where to hide his wallet. Hicks handles all this with a level dignity that sets up nicely the happy endings and new insights.

Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougal, Caesar Samayoa, Sharon Wheatley – one’s favorite tends to be whoever’s speaking at the moment. Much is made over “ensemble theatre” but here, it really happens.




Continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 12, 2015.

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