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No argument. Anyone who was alive and over 5 or 6 on September 11, 2001 remembers with aching accuracy all that they did, heard, and reacted to that day. With the passage of more than a decade, those memories have been refined down to the the most aching bits, the saddest moments. Since then national rancor and suspicion have grown, and grown more overt, in America.
As such, sometimes it is difficult to step back and look at that entire event from an angle other than the legitimately wrenching. But there are subtly positive stories from those days which can prove a connection with our shared humanity in ways which we could all use a chance to get back in touch with. One such story – and it is quite true – is celebrated in Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s “Come From Away,” the delightfully well crafted Broadway musical just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
As that terrible day unfolded, and the entire air space above the United States was ordered closed to all but military traffic, international flights already in the air coming from Europe and beyond, needed to be diverted to a place outside the US as soon as possible. For dozens of aircraft, that meant Gander, Newfoundland, off the Canadian coast.
Within hours there were roughly as many people sitting on planes parked on the aging airport tarmac as there were living in the island province to begin with. How the locals dealt with this diverse, frustrated, and frightened host of people who had “come from away” makes for one celebratory, reflective musical.
Sankoff and Hein’s book for this piece is extraordinary in its ability – in 90 minutes without an intermission – to develop a host of 30+ rounded characters that the 12-member ensemble sweeps into active life. Switching seamlessly from islanders to visitors and back again, dancing and singing with extraordinary precision and art, this is by far one of the best uses of theater’s special ability to suspend an audience’s disbelief since “Man of La Mancha”.
All this with an onstage band playing a score reminiscent modern Irish music, and a sense of urgency and heart which keeps one thoroughly engaged throughout.
The ensemble of Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan McGinnis, Andrew Samonsky, Danielle K. Thomas and Emily Walton all sing with strength and character, and create memorable moments along the way. Perhaps the strongest, at least for me, was Gulsvig’s “Me and the Sky”, where the first female captain of an American Airlines plane not only sings the love of flying which drove her to fight for such a position, but the specific horror of seeing the thing she loves most in the world used as a bomb.
Director Christopher Ashley has used the minimalism of Beowulf Boritt’s set design to create planes, busses, seaward cliffs, bars, and high school gyms out of chairs and belief. The rhythmic, emphatic musical staging by Kelly Devine ripples with energy. Toni-Leslie James’ costume designs allow for simple but evocative character changes in the twinkling of an eye. It is all tight, compelling and completely engrossing.
What’s more, it is hopeful. In a time when horror had struck, for those who were stranded there, the people of Gander and the surrounding area were the antidote to the events overwhelming the world. “Come From Away” is funny, charming, heart-warming without becoming overly sentimental, and compelling from first to last. This is not to say that the tragedy of that time isn’t present. It was, and it is, but the balance of care and conviction counters that with a richness of spirit.
Go see “Come From Away.” In this fraught time of our current history we need to be reminded that goodness is present in the world. Not perfection, but goodness. When you realize that most of the script comes from actually sitting and listening to the islanders telling their stories of those five days, it gives you faith in the potential of the human spirit.
What: “Come From Away” When: through January 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, December 7, 7 p.m. performance Monday, December 31. No performance December 5, and no 8 p.m. performance December 25 or 31 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles How Much: $30 – $135 Info: (213) 792-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
American culture looks back on the 1950s as the period when rock and roll was born. Sometimes, the influence of the jazz, or rhythm and blues, of the African-American south are recognized in its development. Still, little press is given outside of those intimately involved with the music world, to the specific tensions of that breakthrough time, when the south was defined by its color divide, and even the crossing over of musical forms was potentially dangerous.
And that is where the Tony-winning musical “Memphis” takes over. Now making its west coast debut at the Pantages Theatre, “Memphis” supplies the completely apocryphal but nonetheless representational story of how white America discovered the music which would define the era.
Illiterate dreamer Huey Calhoun talks his way into the juke joints of the African-American part of Memphis in the early 1950s, and his obvious passion for the music being sung there gains him gradual if grudging acceptance. Spurred to spread the word about a genre he feels deserves a larger audience, he muscles his way onto a major local radio station, and from there to a tenuous but spectacular American dream. Yet, it is a dream he wants to control, even as he would control the future of the young woman he falls for and promotes. Is she willing to remain in a town where this very romance is both dangerous and illegal? Is he willing to detach himself from the city he consistently claims defines him?
“Memphis” uses as the essential conflict this division between the growing acceptance of “Black” music by white southern teens and the fearsome segregation which defined all of Tennessee society at that same time. And it rocks with lots of emotional and tuneful music, wildly energetic dance numbers and a kind of folksy passion. If only they hadn’t decided they needed a big production number for what should have been a gentle, even wistful ending.
Bryan Fenkart embodies the unsubtle, folksy Huey – a man so sure of his own rightness he cannot, or will not, see the realities of the world around him, a trait which has both positive and negative consequences. Singing kind of out of the side of his mouth, with a twang a mile wide, he vibrates with an earnest energy which powers much of the show. As Felicia, his beloved and the singer destined for stardom, Felicia Boswell embodies both the fear and the joy of someone swept up in Huey’s dreams while facing the darkest realities of segregation. Her voice varies from the controlled R&B of the era, to elaborated gospel, to showstopper belting with significant success.
Others worthy of special mention within this large ensemble company include Julie Johnson as Huey’s dubious but loving mother, Quentin Earl Darrington as Felicia’s equally dubious and protective brother, and William Parry as the radio and television station owner – a tricky part as he must be reasonably sympathetic and elementally racist at the same time. Rhett George and Will Mann, as friends of Felicia’s who find their worlds enhanced by Huey’s dreams, add depth to the piece.
Yet, though this show has some overtones of depth, what people come to the show for is the music. David Bryan’s passionate old school rock and R&B songs, from silly, reminiscent pieces like “Scratch My Itch” to the passionate song of place “Memphis Lives in Me,” provide show stopper after show stopper. You cannot help but boogie along. Still, what happened to those early record companies and those who tried to fight the co-opting of this inherently African-American music by more marketable white performers, hangs over the story line, as it should. Leaving it in that space would have been a truer tale than the sudden and intrusive huge “let’s get everyone on stage and rock the house again” final scene.
Except for that choice, Christopher Ashley’s fast-paced and innovative direction keeps the episodic tale from losing momentum, yet stays appropriate to the varying moods expressed. The use of television cameras to add layers to the scenes at appropriate moments is particularly brilliant. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography radiates adrenaline, thanks to a talented ensemble of dancers. Paul Tazewell’s costumes plant it thoroughly in the period.
In the end, “Memphis” is a not-quite-history lesson, at least of the attitudes and balances which marked the beginning of what we think of as rock and roll. If you are interested, move fast. The show is only in Los Angeles for two weeks, an awfully short visit for something given such high honors on another coast.
What: “Memphis” When: Through August 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., in Hollywood just east of Vine Street How Much: $25 and up Info: http://www.BroadwayLA.org or (800) 982-2728