Review: Come From Away's Opening Night at the Majestic Theatre Explains Its Improbable Success

click to enlarge MATTHEW MURPHY
Matthew Murphy
On paper, the Canadian musical Come From Away seems an unlikely prospect for a runaway hit. With no stars, next-to-no scenery and a plot steeped in the aftermath of 9/11, it might even sound like a box-office bomb. But it gave Dear Evan Hansen a run for its money for Best Musical at the 2017 Tony Awards, and it’s still packing ’em in on Broadway.

Last night’s opening in San Antonio demonstrates the reasons for Come From Away’s improbable success. It’s a moving, beautifully crafted show about the hospitality that residents of Gander, Newfoundland showed to diverted airline passengers in the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks.

With the number of stranded passengers nearly outnumbering the town's residents, the community is pushed to its limits materially — food! water! tampons! — but not, it seems, morally. Indeed, with a generosity of spirit that beggars the imagination, these heroic humans cared for others in distress with humility, ingenuity and a quirky Canadian sense of humor. Drawing on interviews and news footage, collaborators Irene Sankoff and David Hein composed both the ingenious book and the efficient, folk-rock score.

click to enlarge MATTHEW MURPHY
Matthew Murphy
But the real star of the evening is Christopher Ashley’s Tony Award-winning direction. A lesser production could have easily devolved into a messy hodgepodge of crisscrossing snippets and floating soundbites — a sort of soggy musical docudrama. But Ashley finds and lovingly develops the through lines, which are sometimes thematic — the gradual dissolution of trapped passengers into madness, for example — and sometimes character-driven, such as the travails of an Egyptian chef, who discovers a newfound xenophobia even in Newfoundland. By charging the simplest props with overdetermined meaning — a captain’s cap, a lumberjack’s flannel jacket, the seats of a rescue bus — Ashley choreographs the entire evening with an eye toward fluidity. To my surprise, the production seems to draw its greatest inspiration from Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project, which likewise examined the social impact of tragedy on a small town — but without a panoply of exotic instruments such as Uilleann pipes.

Since Come From Away revolves around the humane treatment of foreigners at national borders, the evening possesses, of course, its share of painful political subtexts. At one point, a rescued American wonders if his own country would be as welcoming to those who are helpless, a query that prompted some awkward soul-searching in the Majestic’s audience of Texans. (Given our current barbarism, the answer is clearly no.)

click to enlarge MATTHEW MURPHY
Matthew Murphy
The touring cast is strong. The dozen actors form a true ensemble, navigating the quick costume and character changes with ease. Standouts include Nick Duckart — as, among other things, a flamboyantly gay “sexcretary” — and Marika Aubrey as American Airlines’ first female captain, Beverley Bass. Aubrey also gets one of the show’s few solo numbers: “Me and the Sky.” Most of the score, like the show itself, is company-driven.

The musical’s opening, which chronicles the confusion and horror of that terrible morning, constitutes its most effective sequence. For a good 12 or 15 minutes of stage time, we know something that the passengers don’t: that the world has changed permanently, and not for the better. But over the next 75 minutes or so, the musical also reveals some things don’t change, including the possibility — but not the inevitability — of friendship, generosity and compassion.

So if you’ve been on the fence about seeing a 9/11 musical, don’t stay away. Come.

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 26 and Thursday, February 27, 8 p.m. Friday, February 28, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, February 29, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1, The Majestic Theatre, 224 E. Houston St., (210) 226-3333,

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