Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Musical ‘Come from Away’ Teems with Popular Appeal in Appleton

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Photo caption: Dancing, singing and playing in the exuberant song “Welcome to the Rock” in “Come from Away” are, from left, Danielle K. Thomas, Adam Stoler, Julie Johnson, Harter Clingman, Cynthia Kortman Westphal, Andrew Samonsky, Steve Holloway, Nick Duckart and Becky Gulsvig. (Luis Sinco)

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The story of “Come from Away” in 25 words: Suddenly, seven thousand bewildered people descend on a safe haven on a remote tip of Canada and put the regular folks there to the test.

The production of “Come from Away” visiting Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in 25 words: Twelve versatile actors and a band of eight musicians pack stories of hundreds of lives into a complex yet clear tapestry of humanity facing challenges.

Certain shows have great popular appeal. Judging by the rush of energy at the end that erupted from the audience Tuesday night in Thrivent Financial Hall, “Come from Away” is certainly one.

The musical is about 9/11, though horrific elements are tempered by distance. This is not a scarifying, poke-in-the-eye experience because the straight-on ugliness has taken place elsewhere. This describes an amazing, true-life side story.

“Come from Away” is about what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, because of the attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. When the United States shut down all air traffic, 38 international flights were forced to land in Gander. Suddenly, Gander, with a population of about 9,000, had 7,000 unexpected guests. The musical is a sampler of lives among those 16,000 people.

The show resonates in Northeastern Wisconsin because it has the feel of how people in this neck of the woods might respond to a throng of strangers in need. Part of it is the language. The show is filled with rural accents that sound pretty much like from here – ya, hey, ya know? The title is from a colloquialism – the visitors are not the from-here of Gander, they come from away… outside. Part of the feel is from the workaday folks of Gander – the frumpy mayor, the salty-tongued cop, the stick-by-the-guns union bus driver, the know-everybody waitress, the adamant animal lover. People around here know those folks and maybe are those folks.

The beauty of musical theater is a tremendous amount of story and emotion (pathos to humor to vitriol to romance) can be packed into a compact package. Like in “Come from Away.”

This production is a treat because of how skilled the actors are. One moment, one is a gay guy; the next, he is a Muslim smitten by verbal abuse. One moment, one is a cheery waitress; the next, she is a commanding jetliner pilot. One moment, one is the homey mayor of Gander; the next and next and next, he is the homey mayors of surrounding communities. All the actors play many roles, switching accents, body language, bits of clothing, tone and attitude in a flash.

I’ll used Harter Clingman as an example. I have seen him perform at Peninsula Players Theatre, a noted professional theater in Door County. Over the course of a season, he has played differing characters in plays such as “Alabama Story,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “The Full Monty,” his singing voice especially telling as a suicidal character. In “Come from Away” Harter Clingman plays a whole season of characters in one musical. This town cop becomes, among other personages, a rabbi needing kosher food and becoming a listening post for a secret, his singing voice especially telling again (in Hebrew). The whole cast is made up of Harter Clingmans – actors for life who have played multiple roles for multiple companies and can shift gears like Formula One race drivers heading into a hairpin turn… and then out again.

There is only one full-through, one-story song in the show, “Me and the Sky,” with Becky Gulsvig resonating as she unfolds the life of the determined pioneering pilot Beverley Bass. The other songs are multi-colored as they reveal perspectives of many people caught in overwhelming circumstances.

The music captures the essence of the Gander region, too – a rainbow of folk music colors.

Creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein do a beautiful job all around.

Tuesday’s outburst at end – a kind of release from the waves of information and emotions – was followed by the band continuing to unleash a festive tune. Very life-affirming.

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 Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Irene Sankoff, David Hein; director – Christopher Ashley; music supervision – Ian Eisendrath; musical staging – Kelly Devine; scenic design – Beowulf Boritt; costume design – Toni-Leslie James; lighting design – Howell Binkley; sound design – Gareth Owen

Cast:

Bonnie and others – Megan McGinnis

Oz and others – Harter Clingman

Beverley/Annette and others – Becky Gulsvig

Janice and others – Emily Walton

Bob and others – James Earl Jones II

Claude and others – Kevin Carolan

Kevin T./Garth and others – Andrew Samonsky

Nick/Doug and others – Chamblee Ferguson

Kevin J./Ali and others – Nick Duckart

Hannah and others – Danielle K. Thomas

Beulah and others – Julie Johnson

Diane and others – Christine Toy Johnson

Band: Conductor/keyboard/accordion/harmonium – Cynthia Kortman Westphal; whistles/Irish flute/Uilleann pipes – Isaac Alderson; fiddle – Kiana June Weber; electric/acoustic guitars – Adam Stoler; acoustic guitar/mandolins/bouzouki – Matt Wong; electric/acoustic bass – Max Calkin; bodhran/percussion – Steve Holloway; drums/percussion – Ben Morrow

Running time: One hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. April 3, 4, 5; 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 6; 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 7

Info: foxcitiespac.com

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Musical numbers

“Welcome to the Rock” – Company

“38 Planes” – Company

“Blankets and Bedding” – Company

“28 Hours”/“Wherever We Are” – Company

“Darkness and Trees” – Company

“Costume Party” – Diane, Hannah, Kevin T., Kevin J., Company

“I am Here” – Hannah

“Prayer” – Kevin T., Company

“On the Edge” – Company

“Screech In” – Claude, Company

“Me and the Sky” – Beverley, Female Company

“Stop the World” – Nick, Diane, Company

“Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” – Company

“Something’s Missing” – Company

“Finale” – Company

“Screech Out” – Band

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RELATED EVENT: Pre-performance talk by Sue Frost, Broadway producer of “Come from Away,” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, in Kimberly-Clark Theater of the center.

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

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A LOOK BACK: Below is the chapter from my book, “Tales of a Newspaperman: Ice Bowl and Lombardi Through Time,” about events in the Green Bay Press-Gazette newsroom on Sept. 11, 2001.

The subtitle is “Extra edition.”

For once, The Weather Channel celebrates a beautiful day. It shows the skyline of New York City from across the Hudson River. The sky is high, bright, and blue. It’s a picture postcard scene. Pleasing. Pleasant.

“My dad just called. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”

When secretary Mary Kay Hanamann says that, a picture of a small plane hitting the building by accident flashes in my mind.

TV sets in the Press-Gazette newsroom reveal worse, a litany of worse.

News filters throughout the building. People in advertising, business, and production departments come to the newsroom to find out what they can. As they gather in front of TV sets, their mouths are agape and their faces ashen.

It strikes me that this must be a shared reaction everywhere.

The Press-Gazette is putting together a rare extra edition to hit the streets as soon as possible, and I feel helpless because I write about the media and arts and entertainment, not often “real news.” But I compelled to write about this phenomenon, so I bring it into my field. I sit down and write quickly. I offer my piece to executive editor Carol Hunter. She reads it and accepts it: “OK.”

Television brings shared fear into lives of viewers

Today, our companion in enjoyment brought us horror.

In scene after incredible scene, television audiences throughout America and the world saw shocking, deadly events live.

It was a shared experience of dread and disbelief.

All the war and mayhem movies and TV shows were no match for this reality.

Even watching from Green Bay, distances closed fast. Television does that.

Watching was like riding a bad roller coaster. We were trapped on the circuit. We wanted to get off, but the ride got uglier and more terrible.

Television announcers tried to maintain their calm. They tried to do their duty to keep the public from panicking. But the news kept coming – explosions, hijacks, the closing of airports across the land.

In front of millions of viewers, huge buildings exploded and collapsed.

The famous line that a radio announcer said when the dirigible The Hindenburg burst into flame came to mind: “Oh, the humanity.”

His audience was small. Newsreels spread that scene within a week.

Today, what did the announcer say on the channel you were watching when the World Trade Center exploded? One on CNN maintained his cool and spoke of what he saw as “horrific.”

That was just one impossible scene on a day of impossible events that shook us to the core.

These were not make-believe buildings and airplanes in movies. These had real people in them, and viewers around the country will soon learn that people they know or love were dying as they watched.

Few points of comfort could be found for the nation watching TV this morning. TV did bring us together, for a whole bunch of wrong reasons by wrong-headed people.

Television wasn’t around for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was when President Reagan was shot. It was when the Challenger blew up. The nation stopped each time.

Today was different. We’ve never seen such a scale of death and destruction, not live on TV.

This was a common TV experience of searing images already ingrained in our psyche.

Years later, I’m wiping dinner dishes. I wipe a large, decorated platter Kathy picked out at Wisconsin Pottery, a fine art studio and gallery in Columbus. J.D. Huntley, the potter, likes to write sayings and comments on the back of his work. I read the back of this platter.

Above the saying “North, South, East, West/Home is always best” is “9.10.01 beautiful day.”

When I phone my daughter later in the day on 9.11.01, I say, “Everything changes.” Much has.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. “Tales of a Newspaperman: Ice Bowl and Lombardi Through Time” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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