Theater

Come From Away at PPAC Focuses on the Light in a Dark Moment

It’s a Christmas miracle.

The lights came up, the actors bowed, and the audience didn’t head for the doors.

Anyone who knows me knows about my never-ending gripe with the audiences at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) rushing for the door as soon as a show ends.

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If you’re one of those people, please let me take this opportunity to tell you that you’re a horrible human being and you need to knock it off before 2020 rolls around, because I’ve made a resolution to start tripping some of you as you run up the aisles.

Either it’s the time of year or — more likely — the broad and beautiful spirit of the latest tour onstage at PPAC, but people at my performance were more than willing to wait and give the company all the applause they so rightfully deserved.

In Come From Away, the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, becomes an unexpected haven for 7,000 stranded passengers whose flights are rerouted on September 11.

The show is that unique musical commodity — a non-adaptation with an original book and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. It had several productions across the country before ending up on Broadway in 2017, where it was nominated for a slew of Tony awards (winning one for Best Director Christopher Ashley) and is still running today.

Sankoff and Hein created the musical from interviews they did with residents of Gander and passengers who returned there 10 years after the attacks. An approach like that is often used in plays like The Laramie Project, but it’s not something you often see in musicals.

The result is a musical that weaves in and out of stories and characters, all embodied by a dozen actors who change their appearances slightly to convey everyone from an airline pilot to a bickering couple to the mayor of Gander.

The set design by Beowful Boritt is evocative of both sky and ocean. The show’s presentation of a global community in the midst of a crisis is served well by original director Ashley and Kelly Devine, who did the musical staging. The cast helps create various locations by assembling chairs and small set pieces. Another local critic compared this method of staging to Once and The Band’s Visit, and I have no idea why. If the suggestion is that productions that don’t adopt an aesthetically literal approach to storytelling are identical, then I guess Phantom of the Opera and 42nd Street are essentially twins.

The staging style of Come From Away is its very own spectacle, and it helps move the story along at a deceptively breakneck pace, culminating in a one-act evening that is the perfect show to put you in a holiday mood without shoving a Christmas tree down your throat.

While there is a song list, one bit of music flows into the next so seamlessly that it feels as though everything is happening on one breath. Feel-good shows often devolve into emotional pandering, but this one leans into the complexity rather than away from it.

These characters rarely break down and cry. Instead they worry about practical matters like when they’re getting home, how they can reach their loved ones, and how they can stay busy in a town that doubled in size overnight. One thing they do is dance — in one of the most joyous musical moments I’ve seen in a long time, some of the out-of-towners become honorary citizens of Newfoundland by kissing a fish, getting drunk, and momentarily embracing the new world they’re visiting rather than think about the scarier one that awaits them when they finally get to leave.

Marika Aubrey is a standout as Beverly, the pilot of one of the planes, whose passion for flying is jeopardized when she realizes something she loves has been used in such a sinister way. Rather than take the easy way out and have her sing about a person she’s missing back home, the creators of the show have her sing about her relationship to her profession, more like a calling, in “Me and the Sky.” It’s marvelous.

Nick Duckart and Adam Halpin are terrific as a couple, both named Kevin, who find themselves pulled apart by the differing ways they choose to deal with their new reality. While their relationship falls apart, a new one blooms between a British man named Nick and a Texan named Diane, portrayed delightfully by Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson. The unlikely romance between the two is one of the show’s highlights.

James Earl Jones II got some of the show’s biggest laughs as Bob, a man who has trouble believing the trusting nature of the folks from Gander. One of them is Beulah, played by the enchanting Julie Johnson, who opens up the local academy to hundreds of displaced people from all over the world. Beulah’s friendship with Hannah, played by Danielle K. Thomas, is one of the production’s best pairings. Thomas is striking in the role, conveying hysteria without opting to play hysterical. So much of the acting in the show is subtle in a way that might make you question whether it can work in venues the size of PPAC, but the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Kevin Carolan makes for a strong anchor of the show as the town’s mayor — and several other mayors as well — and his droll deliveries give the show its much needed lighter moments, while Harter Clingman’s Oz is just the right mix of Coen Brothers and Newhart.

By the end of the show, the audience — like the passengers — have developed an immense fondness for the townspeople. Julia Knitel has spot-on comedic timing as Janice, the local journalist who finds herself thrust in the spotlight. I had a soft spot for Sharone Sayegh’s Bonnie, the manager of the Gander animal shelter. Sayegh has the unenviable task of putting all her emotional investment in characters you can’t see, but she pulls it off flawlessly.

Make no mistake, the tragedy of 9/11 casts a shadow over the story, but Come From Away chooses to focus on the light and not the dark. It’s about people at their best, unlikely heroism and pragmatic resiliency.

Give your friends and family their gift early this year, and make sure it’s a ticket to see this extraordinary show.

Come From Away runs until Sunday, December 8, at the Providence Performing Arts Center.

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