Keller Auditorium

Come from Away: the true tale

As the Broadway hit comes to town, the inside story of the town that took care of 6,500 passengers stranded by the terrorist attacks of 9/11

[Editors’ note: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff, founder/CEO of Austin’s EnviroMedia marketing company, was returning from a vacation in France with his boyfriend. As their transatlantic flight approached New York City, the plane suddenly turned north. Half an hour later it landed in Newfoundland, a large Canadian island in the North Atlantic ocean. For the next 11 hours, Tuerff, his boyfriend (called Evan here), and 248 other passengers remained aboard the plane – one of 38 forced to land at the Newfoundland airport – as they learned the horrifying news of the terrorist attack on New York. As night fell, they were finally allowed to disembark. They were stranded in the small town of Gander.

What happened next would change Tuerff’s life forever — including becoming one of the subjects of the hit musical Come from Away, which opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday, March 3, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Portland/New York producers Corey and Jessica Brunish are among the producers of the Broadway production.

There’s another Portland connection. “Portland was introduced to this story in 2009, two years before I met the writers of the musical,” Tuerff remembers. “That’s when EnviroMedia had an office in the White Stag building and we brought our Pay it Forward 9/11 effort to the Pacific Northwest.” He visited the city often over the next few years. Now living in New York City, Tuerff is a public speaker, CEO of the marketing and public relations firm Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC, and author of the new book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 about his life-changing Gander experience. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3, Where Am I and Who Are These Nice People.]

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By KEVIN TUERFF

After finally stepping off the plane, walking down the stairway onto the tarmac, I felt a great sense of relief. It was around 9 p.m. It was dark and the air temperature felt cool, considering I was wearing shorts. I turned my camera on, capturing the airport’s Gander sign. I spoke into the microphone, “We’re free, we’re free! After I-don’t-know-how-many hours on that awful plane, we’re free. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going.”

I turned the camera to Evan. He said, “We’re in Gander, and all I know is they better have CNN here.”

Inside the airport, security was very serious and tight, and there were just two Canadian immigration and customs authorities available to check passports. The airport staff would work nonstop around the clock for days to deplane the 6,500 stranded passengers. We were among the first. After the immigration screening, we entered the main terminal, which was barely bigger than a high school auditorium. And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party! There were dozens of volunteers present. Some were wearing their Salvation Army or Red Cross uniforms and sat at ten-foot-long tables. Their job was to make sure every stranded passenger was documented and taken care of. Most of them were older adults, perhaps looking a bit Irish, like me. There were dozens of volunteers at tables set up with food that had everything from home-baked cookies and squares to buckets of KFC fried chicken.

First National Tour of “Come from Away.” The Broadway touring company opens in Portland at Keller Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Portland Opera’s Broadway Across America series. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2018

The Air France flight crew had distributed all the food they had, so we weren’t hungry. Thinking we might be headed to a tent camp, Evan and I grabbed lots of food and drinks, unsure of when we might be fortunate enough to have these items again. We were told to immediately head outside to a waiting school bus that would take us to our shelter.

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‘Hamilton’ in Portland: Historic!

The national company of Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking, dazzling Broadway musical lights up the Keller. Got your ticket?

The audience erupted in cheers Wednesday evening as the lights went down in Keller Auditorium and we were instructed to turn off our cellphones. The anticipation was palpable in that moment. I realized, Oh my god. I’m about to see Hamilton.

If you’re not familiar with Hamilton – in which case, welcome to our arts blog, I’m not sure how you got here – it’s a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. If you’re struggling to remember who Alexander Hamilton was, he’s one of the founding fathers, most famous for promoting the U.S. Constitution and setting up our financial system.

Hamilton was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences when it opened in 2015, and has quickly become a cultural touchstone. How did Miranda make a musical about one of the lesser-known founding fathers such a success?

By putting it together in ways people wouldn’t expect.

Joseph Morales and Marcus Choi in “Hamilton.” Photo © Joan Marcus 2018

Miranda makes it clear from the start of the show that this won’t be like any other musical you’d normally see. The opening number, Alexander Hamilton, builds slowly with the cast rapping the history of Hamilton’s youth while adding layers of more traditional musical harmonies before ending in an enormous crescendo.

Wednesday’s Portland audience really lost their minds after that.

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Gershwin in Paris: S’wonderful

The Broadway tour of "An American in Paris" creates a gorgeous spectacle of song and dance inside Keller Auditorium

“S’wonderful, it’s marvelous,” this Broadway version of An American in Paris, playing at the Keller Auditorium through Sunday.

I thought so when I saw it in New York a year ago, and I still thought so last night, when the national touring company version opened here with a cast that is not as accomplished as the one I saw on Broadway, but nevertheless gave some outstanding and absorbing performances. All the other elements that make this such a wonderful show are, happily, unchanged, except for the orchestra, which is smaller. Christopher Wheeldon’s signature choreography; Bob Crowley’s stylish multimedia sets and costumes, which put you squarely in wartime Paris; and Natasha Katz’s lighting design, giving us both a city of light and one of war-time darkness, remain the same, as does the book by Craig Lucas.

Puttin’ on the ritz: the “American in Paris” company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

These elements come felicitously together in the service of George Gershwin’s music, the jazzy orchestral “American in Paris,” composed in 1928 as an homage to the city of the Lost Generation, as well as songs with lyrics by Ira Gershwin such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” familiar to the many members of the not-so-young audience who remember the 1951 film on which the show is based.

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