For actress Danielle K. Thomas, there’s only one way to explain the power of “Come from Away,” a musical in the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta series’ 2018-19 season.
“It says on the playbill it’s a remarkable true story, and remarkable is probably the best way to describe it,” said Thomas, who plays Hannah and other characters in the award-winning production on its North American tour. “It’s hard to put into words the overwhelming feeling of emotions with this play. We had a person who met us at the stage door after one show, and she said, ‘All I’m feeling is just joy and thank you.’ We allow ourselves to bring you with us on the stage on this journey, to bring you all these emotions.
“You’re going to feel grief and sadness but you’re going to laugh. You come away from this feeling of hope and joy and the compassion you can have. It’s literally the best story. I want everybody to hear it because you’re going to be better after you hear it. A lot of the fans waiting at the stage door (afterwards) want to say thank you, and I want to say thank you for telling this story. It just makes you feel good. It’s that good. I’m not saying it because I’m in it but because it’s literally the best story ever. It just makes you better.”
“Come from Away” will come to the Fox Theatre in Midtown June 25 through 30. It is based on the true story of nearly 6,600 passengers and crew being stranded at Gander International Airport in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada (population 10,000).
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opted to shut down its airspace and force over 4,000 planes to land at the nearest airport. Inbound flights from Europe were sent to Canada.
The musical debuted at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, in 2013 and was subsequently performed in three U.S. cities, starting with San Diego before being shown in Toronto and then on Broadway in New York in 2017.
“Come from Away” was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won for Best Direction of a Musical. It also was nominated for nine Drama Desk Awards, winning three: Outstanding Musical Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical (Jenn Colella) and Outstanding Book of a Musical.
Actress Julie Johnson, who plays Beulah and other characters on the tour, said the realism of the musical makes it stand out.
“I think the fact that it is about a real, true human story that happened not that long ago, and the fact that all the people we get to portray are still alive, still thriving (are the reasons),” she said. “Oftentimes when you’re in a show, if it is about real people, they’re no longer with us and it’s a historical piece or they’re fictional.
“The fact (is) we’re portraying real people doing extraordinary things, but they don’t see what they did as extraordinary. To quote one of them, Beulah, ‘We just did what we always do.’ They’re very humble. But they are thoroughly enjoying this story is getting told and people are being affected so positively by it.”
Johnson said the cast and crew have met and gotten to know many of the individuals who were stranded in Gander during the tour’s stops in Canada and elsewhere.
“Each one of us has had a chance to meet at least one of the characters we’ve gotten to portray,” she said. “That’s been an incredible experience as an actors, because that never happens. You do get a lovely idea of just the pace of life for these people and the way they accept what comes their way and they just keep going, no matter the hardship or happiness is, at an even keel. Their kindness just permeates a room.”
Johnson and Thomas are veteran actresses who have previously performed at the Fox in Broadway in Atlanta’s “Memphis” in 2012 and “Avenue Q” in 2008, respectively. Both have been with the “Come from Away” tour since its inception last year.
Johnson, who played the voice of Baby Bop on the PBS children’s show “Barney & Friends,” has also appeared in musicals both on and off Broadway. When not on tour she lives in her hometown of Whitewright, Texas, about 60 miles northeast of Dallas.
Thomas, a native of Brooklyn, New York, lives there when not on tour. She has appeared in Off-Broadway shows plus several TV shows, including “Rescue Me” and “The Last O.G.” Both actresses said they are looking forward to performing at the Fox once again.
“I’m so excited,” Thomas said. “The Fox is gorgeous and enormous. We get a better deal than the Broadway company because we get to see so many people every night. It’s always (had) great audiences, and I’m really excited to be returning there. It’s one of the cities we’re all excited about. We wish it were more than a week (there).”
Said Johnson, “The beauty of that theater is more than breathtaking when you step out on the stage and look out toward the audience. You feel like you’re in a film somewhere set in ‘Arabian Nights.’ (With) the sound of the organ, you truly step back in time. And yet the facilities are completely modern for all of our backstage needs. The theater is already a theatrical experience when you walk in the door and then you get the pleasure of seeing a show on stage.”
Both actresses are also looking forward to visiting friends and family in metro Atlanta. Thomas has an aunt, uncle and cousins living here, and Johnson has about 10 friends in town.
As for “Come from Away,” both said its restorative powers are immeasurable.
“I want people … to realize this story that seems to center around 9/11 is actually about 9/12 and the way human beings and the human spirit embraced strangers who were in need,” Johnson said. “(They) provided so much for them from food (and) clothing to spiritual uplifting and embraced them as if they were long-lost friends. Those friendships have continued for so many of those people, and we got to meet them. It really does renew your faith in the human spirit and kindness.”
Thomas, who was at home with her parents on 9/11 and watched on TV as the second plane hit the World Trade Center towers, said “Come from Away” has actually changed her 9/11 story “for the better.”
“I just really hope the Atlanta folks come out and see it because as I said before, you are going to be better for it,” she said. “I feel sorry for those who don’t hear this story. You end up leaving and being a better person. Its message gets spread across the city, the state, the country, the world. So I can’t wait to let everyone hear the story and know all about it. It’s all about compassion to everyone. We need it. We need to feel good. No matter who or what you are or stand for, you feel good and you feel as one. That is kind of amazing. This show has power to do things we can’t do.”
Tickets are $31 to $145.25 (plus applicable fees). For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.foxtheatre.org/comefromaway, call 1-855-285-8499 or go to the Fox box office at 660 Peachtree St. NE in Atlanta. Group orders of 10 or more may be placed by calling 404-881-2000.