By: Aly Prouty, Special to The Irish American Post
The house lights will come down at Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center from May 7-12, like any other night. The stage lights will fade, as they would for any show, but Come From Away is not just like the rest.
The production is a riveting Broadway musical telling a true story of kindness in the midst of terror.
After the horrific 9/11 attacks, planes were no longer allowed to land on U.S. soil for several days. Flights were diverted all over the world, including 38 planes carrying 7,000 people landing in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. Gander, home to 9,000 residents, came together to house, feed and comfort their suddenly arriving visitors.
At its core, the show is really about how easy it is to be kind, a trait not limited to a person or location. The production attempts to inspire small, random acts of kindness all over the world.
“The people of Gander displayed an automatic and a natural thing. They saw what was ahead of them. They saw what they were handed. Without even being asked, they all displayed random acts of kindness, and it’s very, very easy to do,” said Michael Brian Dunn, a standby for Come From Away. He is responsible for knowing multiple parts inside and out and could go on stage at a moment’s notice.
Dunn is a familiar acting face, appearing in Julie & Julia Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and numerous theatrical productions including Doctor Zhivago, Cats, The Life, Guys & Dolls, Big River and Sweeney Todd. Dunn has also been a regular off-Broadway performer, appearing in Ira and George Gershwin's musical, Crazy for You, at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Mass. The venue is the longest-running professional summer theater in the country and referred to as the “Place Where Broadway Goes to Summer” by The New York Times.
“The cast and crew take Come From Away’s message to heart. Dunn said, emphasizing that the entire theatrical endeavor is a labor of love. Everyone who has had a hand in the musical’s creation takes it seriously, putting their heart and soul into it, recognizing the impact it has had on audiences, he emphasized, saying he was honored to have his name in the program.
Music and lyrics are by writing partners and married couple Irene Sankoff and Canadian David Hein, living in New York during the 2001 terror attacks. The two visited Gander in 2011 for a 10-year reunion of those involved and wrote Come from Away based on the conversations there with locals and passengers.
There are 12 regular cast members in the show, but each actor plays multiple roles. Every character is based on a specific person who experienced those real world events.
“We’ve met all of them. We portray all of these characters … who opened up their homes ... “ Dunn said. “They are absolutely delightful.”
They’ve also met many of the Gander visitors, now known fondly by the locals as the Come from Aways, since they came to Newfoundland from another place.
Dunn covers five actors and each role they play. His favorite happens to be the mayor of Gander, who he has performed most often. “He is salt of the earth and I just love portraying him,” Dunn said.
Like his nightly assignment, Dunn said his pre-show routine frequently changes as well. He tries to avoid regular rituals, explaining that once he forms a habit, it’s difficult to stop doing it.
“I learned earlier on in my career that you want to start where you want to finish, so there are plenty of those things. But I try to keep them to a minimum because I want to keep it fresh,” Dunn said. “I don’t particularly have a strong superstitious kind of thing.”
He added that he always tries to find a quiet, quick moment for meditation or takes a rest to keep focused while on the road.
This international story of compassion is traveling all over the country, setting box office records. The tour started last October and will run through September, 2019. This year will be the first some of the cast has ever been to Milwaukee. The musical ran at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from December, 2018, to January, 2019, before transferring to the Phoenix Theatre in London's West End from Jan. 30, 2019, with a British cast.
On November 15, 2017, it was announced that The Mark Gordon Company would produce a feature film adaptation of the musical, with Sankoff and Hein writing the script and Christopher Ashley as director.
While time is limited in their tour stops, due the amount of performances, Dunn said he always tries to find time to explore his new host-town. He opts to absorb the local vibe, poking his head into cafes, coffee shops and traipsing through neighborhoods as opposed to hitting major tourist attractions.
Dunn is never really off the clock though. As he walks through cities, he often finds himself going through lines. “So, if anyone in Milwaukee sees a strange guy talking to himself, it’s probably me,” he quipped.
The actor does have a personal connection to Milwaukee. He and his husband work with an organization called Broadway Kids Auditions, a training program for young adults with theatrical aspirations. One of Dunn’s clients lives in Milwaukee and will be in a show while he’s in town, which he hopes to see.
The Milwaukee newcomer has one expectation for Brew City, though. He noted that no matter where he is, the applause and screams at the play’s conclusion are really incredible. It’s consistent through every city,” Dunn said. “I can’t imagine that it would be any different in Milwaukee.”