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REVIEW: Come From Away in Gander, NL

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iPhoto caption: Photo by Chris Crockwell.
/By / Jul 25, 2023
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You are here.

It’s a fitting tagline for the reimagined Come From Away, helmed by Newfoundlander Jillian Keiley and staged exclusively in Gander. “You are here,” intone the promotional materials for this production — you’re on holy ground, the shimmering small town featured in one of Canada’s most influential theatrical exports. You’re at the tip of a tiny island, nestled in the community that hosted thousands of diverted international travellers on September 11. 

You are here. And you are bearing witness to Come From Away as it’s never been seen before.

This isn’t the first time Come From Away has come home to Newfoundland. A stripped-down, concert version of the musical came home to the province last year, with stops in St. John’s and Gander. (I covered it for the Toronto Star and wept the whole time.) But the bones of that Come From Away had roots in Christopher Ashley’s staging, the one that likely comes to mind when you think of the show: twelve mismatched chairs, doubled roles, and simple, powerful choreography. It’s the Come From Away that’ll return to the Royal Alexandra Theatre next year. And it’s the Come From Away that’s touched millions around the world.

All this to say: Come From Away wasn’t really in need of a re-vamp. David Hein and Irene Sankoff’s book and music constitute a perfect pearl of a musical, one which continues to swing widely and land deeply — never once does this show let you laugh too hard or cry for too long. When this new Come From Away was announced, I was a tad skeptical — why fix what ain’t broke?

Because, it turns out, you can’t overstate the emotional blow of seeing Come From Away in Gander, and under the direction of a Newfoundlander. 

Come From Away is everywhere in this town. It’s painted on mailboxes and on the sides of buildings. Cheerful flags point to the sites referenced in the show. You can hardly drive a block without spotting the Shoppers Drug Mart of “Blankets and Bedding” yore, or the Tim Hortons where town officials once bickered over school bus strikes, or the hotel Captain Beverley Bass called home for those fateful few days in 2001. Gander’s a teeny place with huge room in its heart for Come From Away, and the fact that the internationally acclaimed show has come home to one of its 400-seat community centres is an enormously big deal. 

Senior editor Aisling Murphy and editorial advisor Karen Fricker in front of the Shoppers Drug Mart in Gander, NL.

This production, produced jointly by Michael Rubinoff and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Culture Centres, brings the tender beating heart of Sankoff and Hein’s book to new levels, as if that were even possible. Shawn Kerwin’s set incorporates thousands of knitted squares, hand-crafted by residents of Gander. On opening night, Rubinoff told the audience that the production had only needed 200 such tiles — and the Gander knitting community sent them in by the thousands. The extras adorn the auditorium and lobby, shepherding the audience into Keiley’s new take on the show.

Some of the changes are immediately clear: instead of twelve chairs, Kerwin’s set uses white suitcases and shelf units to suggest the various locales of the show. Those white cubes become everything from fast food booths to stepping stones to, chillingly, the Twin Towers. It’s a smart design choice that immediately sets the production apart from Ashley’s, along with a sloped back wall studded with the knitted squares.

And another bold change, though perhaps more visible to the most ardent of Come From Away fans: the casting. Newfoundlander Petrina Bromley, who spent years playing Bonnie and others on Broadway, now plays Captain Bass, bringing a gentle warmth to a role that in the past has had a tendency of skewing strident — it’s a lovely reimagining of the part. Astrid Van Wieren, too, has been one of the recognizable constants of the show as Beulah, but here in Gander, she’s Diane, and she soars in the role, playing well off West End veteran Stuart Hickey as Nick. Clint Butler, another Newfoundlander, is another standout as Kevin T., along with Tyler Belo as Bob, Maiesha McQueen as Hannah, and Toronto favourite Michael Torontow as Kevin J.

There are a few bumps to be ironed out as Keiley’s Come From Away settles into its Gander run — small gurgles in Don Ellis’ sound design and flickers in Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting at times distract from the gorgeousness of the rest of the production. But those quibbles are minor and understandable — Come From Away is a big show, and I’d wager the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre isn’t used to productions as technically demanding as this one — and I’ve no doubt the tech will become more solid in the weeks to come (and even beyond, if the producers wisely decide to bring Come From Away back to Gander year-after-year, in an Anne of Green Gables-style seasonal production).

If you can get to Gander to catch this Come From Away, do. (And take a day to explore the town while you’re there — that experience renders Keiley’s re-imagining of the show all but immersive.) This is one of the most important musicals in Canadian history, and to witness it in all its sentimental glory in Gander is not an experience you’ll soon forget. You are here, as the show will remind you more than once — and you’ll feel that magic the whole time.


Come From Away runs at the Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre through September 3. Tickets are available here.


Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy
WRITTEN BY

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.

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