A new Musical powered by Irish Music
If you enjoy Irish music, you won’t want to miss the musical, Come from Away, where it sets the beat for a heart-warming story of unconditional hospitality. Musical director is Luke Hunter who also plays keyboard, harmonium and accordion. None of the band, with the exception of Xani Kolac on fiddle plays only one instrument. Ian Eisendrath is responsible for arrangements. One of the highlights of the show was a rendition, at a critical moment where inter-faith tensions were foregrounded, of the Prayer of St Francis, a perfect choice, if an unexpected one. I’m not sure, as the programme does not make this clear, whether any of the musicians (Vicky Jacobs, Dave Beck, Caleb Garfinkel, Tim Hartwig, Matthew Horsley, James Kempster, Ben Smark and those mentioned above) have a profile specifically as musicians in the Irish style (others more expert in the field will know), but they dish it up in spades, and the Irish tonality accounts for much of what is exciting about the show, and the 15 numbers keep the show moving, the heart responding. The Comedy has a small stage, and it was only occasionally that the musicians became part of the action but when they did, they raised the emotional stakes.
Winner of multiple major awards, the musical is set in Newfoundland, in Gander, to be precise. Once a strategic point and refuelling stop on the trans-Atlantic air route, it has become by 2001, because of the better range of big jets, virtually redundant. Until, that is, 9/11, when it was used to divert nearly 40 jumbos when American airspace was closed in response to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Irene Sankoff and David Hein are responsible for the book, music and lyrics of the show, and the technical team is largely from the USA and Canada, but the acting team is largely (75%) drawn from the Australian industry, and they are to a person excellent.
One of the features of the show is that it’s based on real characters, or composites of characters, and that those people both owned the show and as well inspired the creatives to tell their stories as honestly as possible. The reality factor really matters in this musical. Whenever it opens around the world, some of those local ministering angels arrive to check out the show.
The narrative involves the hospitality of inhabitants of the Rock (Newfoundland) in the face of a huge influx of close to 10,000 needing refuge for almost a week. It shows how locals broke down the paranoia and reserve of the strangers and offered succour in a time of need. The contrasts between hyper-sophisticates and earthy, simple Newfies was milked for all it was worth, as the latter geared up several notches their familiar disaster plans and swung into action, organising hospitality on the grandest of scales. Once applied to for food and blankets and provisions, the islanders responded unstintingly to the extent that they used the local ice skating rink as an improvised industrial freezer. The terminally ill children en route to Disneyland for the experience of their short lives instead had classy experiences in Newfoundland, and not even the crated animals lacked for supporters. It sounds as if it’s a recipe for sentimentalism, but it’s not. Hard stories get told too, like the friendship that blossoms between the mother of a firefighter who did not survive the collapse of the two towers, and the Newfoundland mother who had lost her firefighter son in a different battle, and the gay couple whose relationship founders. What makes it so winning is that it puts together a multitude of tales of ordinary folk caught up in an unfathomable set of evil events who turn them to good account.
The show is brilliantly articulated – it moves smartly through its myriad of narratives. Simply staged, it demonstrates what an imaginative director can do with about 20 chairs, not to mention the fact that even from the back of the theatre, I didn’t miss a word of the sung recitative. Not a foot-stamp or an instrument ever got in the way of spit-spot articulation and direct communication, because the sound design was so slick. The real star of the show is the music which is inspired by Irish music, a strong tradition in Newfoundland, and it tugs at the heartstrings, propelled by the compelling true narrative of the stranded passengers. Don’t miss it. You’ll probably find yourself giving it a standing ovation, as hundreds of Australians are doing nightly. It’s on at the Comedy Theatre. it is well-earned adulation for a simple story well lived and lived with heart, and it is told with style.
Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective and has been a theatre critic for decades.