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Wednesday, Sept. 11 — There’s no huge cast, fancy costumes or sing-along songs. It’s about being stranded in a remote town in Canada when the horrific events of 9/11 were unfolding — which hardly sounds like the makings of a thrilling Broadway show.
But “Come From Away,” now showing at Michigan State University’s Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, is thrilling, as well as heartwarming, uplifting and fascinating.
The musical runs 140 minutes without an intermission. I was glad there was no interruption to the quick, emotional pace of the show and I was genuinely sad when it was over. Not because of any unsatisfied wishes, but because I didn’t want the entertainment to stop.
“Come From Away” is based on the true story of travelers who were forced to deplane in Gander, Newfoundland in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. The town of about 10,000 took in around 7,000 unexpected strangers from 38 international flights and treated them like family.
A cast of 12 experienced and gifted actors switch into ever-changing roles to represent multinational passengers or the members of the small community that opened their homes and arms to them. It is an ensemble within an ensemble.
With props no more complex than a few phones, chairs and tables, the cast transforms into the multiple characters — with varying personalities and accents — with ease. Shifts to Canadian, Brooklyn, Yiddish, Egyptian, Texan and more enunciations are smooth. Their timing is precise with role changes and the frequent choreographed moves.
Individual and collective stories of kindness are expressed by narrations told in different voices and featured-singer songs. Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah, James Earl Jones II as Bob, Marika Aubrey as Beverley and Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T, had vocals worthy of spotlights.
The vocal talent was as powerful as the humanitarian acts of kindness. The combination makes a moving and engaging production — one with messages about the acceptance of all races, religions and gender identities.
Those who lived through the terrible events of the September morning overtaken by ghastly smoke, will surely find their memories rekindled by the show. “Come From Away,” with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, also offers hope. And despite its premise, there are numerous laughs for adults.
For the Wharton to feature the show on the week of the 9/11 anniversary is a major coup, making the musical’s impact especially potent.
Some imposing aspects of the set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, add to the overall grandeur. Floor-to-ceiling tree trunks tower above the action. A cleverly lit background with surprise openings gives the illusions of a plane’s door or an exit.
The musical has no orchestra pit. Instead, the eight-piece band is only partially obscured on the stage. There are moments when talented musicians gambol with the actors onstage with percussion, guitar, accordion, flute and fiddle.
The band also appears after the boisterous standing ovation, to perform a rousing instrumental finale that had nearly a full house on opening night roaring its approval. It seemed a noise of that magnitude might be heard as far away as Newfoundland.
“Come from Away”
Wednesday. Sept.11-Thurs. Sept.12 7:30- 9 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 13 8-9:30 p.m.
Sat., Sept. 14 2-3:30 p.m., 8-9:30 p.m.
Sun., Sept. 15 1-2:30 p.m., 6:30-8 p.m.
MSU’s Wharton Center – Cobb Great Hall
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing