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See It: Come From Away

La Jolla Playhouse premieres a meaningful musical for our time


Jenn Colella (left) and the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical COME FROM AWAY | Photo by Kevin Berne

I’m tired of going to the theater to see fairy tales, fables, Disney franchises, revivals, remakes, and reimaginings. Bring on the totally original musical Come From Away, playing in the intimate Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. It’s based on the real-life story of the 38 planes and 7,000 passengers that were rerouted to tiny Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. The book, music, and lyrics were written by married couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who were in New York City on 9/11. They interviewed several islanders as well as the “plane people” forced into this “international sleepover.”

How to stage such a story? Each actor plays several parts. An SPCA woman tries to get access to and feed the animals on board; locals make chili and donate clothes; a good-natured mayor houses a skeptical New Yorker; restless travelers meet and drink—two even fall in love. One woman, the mother of a NYC firefighter, waits by the phone.

The mostly-uptempo folk songs are catchy (no snoozer ballads) and the characters are an endearing and humorous folk. (But it isn’t all comedy! There were times I was about to cry.) One standout is Jenn Colella, who plays pilot Beverley. (You may remember her from Chaplin; she also co-starred with Idina Menzel in Broadway’s If/Then.) I also really liked Astrid Van Wieren, a master of accents.

During the performance, I had a bit of a meta-experience. I was sitting next to my dad watching a show about 9/11 and the week following it. During that same week and year, I sat next to my dad as we drove across country from San Diego to New Hampshire (in the direction of Newfoundland), where I would attend graduate school. A lot of memories came back—the national minute of silence, the fact that a lot of people didn’t have cell phones, and how empty the airports were when the airspace opened again (I dropped my dad off in Manchester, NH to fly back to SAN, and we were the only people at the curb). It was funny to be going through it with my dad once again next to me.

The show is powerful but not overpowering (read: you won’t walk out of the theater on a weeknight feeling totally drained). As someone who shies away from reading commemorative 9/11 magazine issues or reliving events at the 9/11 museum, and someone who generally prefers a tap dance over anything sad and depressing—take it from me when I say it was the most pleasurable way to face unhappy history, to share a common experience with strangers, and see it from fresh points of view.

Come From Away
Through July 12

Directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley
A co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre
100 minutes, no intermission
Box office: 858-550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org

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