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Broadway in Peoria series returns to the Civic Center, kicking off with a true story for the 2022-23 season

Matthew Murphy
The North American tour of "Come From Away" performs.

The Ameren Illinois Broadway in Peoria series is back at the Peoria Civic Center for its second season beginning on Nov. 2 with the hit Broadway musical "Come From Away."

The series is presented by The American Theatre Guild, which seeks to bring Broadway titles and shows to underserved audiences that often wouldn’t otherwise attend the theater due to financial restraints or travel requirements.

“The magic of Broadway is something that just can't be missed in a lot of respects," said Craig Aikman, director of programming for the organization. "And we have a rare opportunity to bring that magic to audiences all over the country."

Craig Aikman
Craig Aikman, director of programming for The American Theatre Guild.

The American Theatre Guild brings the shows to a total of 14 different markets across the country. In conjunction with the Peoria Civic Center, conversations about bringing the series to Peoria began in 2020.

“Peoria was just a wonderful fit for us … there was support for bringing Broadway in … there was an audience that wanted to see, you know, the best possible shows that were direct from Broadway that we could bring into the city. It's a very savvy community. The audience in Peoria understands what the titles are, understands what the shows are about, and is excited to have something local that they don't have to travel out of the area to go see,” said Aikman.

The first season in Peoria launched in 2021 with four shows. Aikman said the goal is to select a wide variety of titles that will appeal to everybody, noting the selection of the first show that will kick off the 2022-23 season, "Come From Away," was a no-brainer.

“It is the most incredible show I've ever seen,” said Aikman. “It truly is. And it is seriously the sleeper show that people don't necessarily know a whole lot about.”

The series will continue throughout the year with three other main titles, including "Legally Blonde The Musical," "Anastasia," and "Dear Evan Hansen." There also are two season add-on shows: "Stomp" and "The Simon & Garfunkel Story."

"Come From Away" is a unique musical based on the true events that transpired in the small town of Gander on and shortly after the 9/11 attacks. When 9/11 hit, the FAA shut down its airspace, forcing 4,000 planes to land at the nearest airports.

Gander International Airport, located in Canada, unexpectedly had 38 planes land on Sept. 9, 2001. With a population of just 9,300 people at the time, the town now had an additional 6,579 people to care for. Claude Elliott was the mayor of Gander for 21 years, including in 2001. He said when he first learned of the attacks, he had no idea the role Gander would play.

“We only got 500 hotel rooms here in Gander. So, we knew we were going to have a logistic problem ... in the housing people, but the greatest asset that any community has is its people, and we knew that we could count on the people in Gander,” said Elliott.

Claude Elliot.jpg
Claude Elliott
Claude Elliott, former mayor of Gander for 21 years, including during 9/11.

The people are what is at the heart of the musical. The show shares several stories from people all in Gander that day and the days after the attacks, including the passengers; Mayor Elliott; Capt. Beverley Bass, who landed a plane in Gander that day; and so many more.

Elliott noted once the planes landed in Gander, the passengers were held inside for hours. But it is these hours that allowed Elliott and the rest of the community to make the necessary preparations for their new residents.

“We had everything arranged,” said Elliott. “We had volunteers, we had church organizations, we had every place where people were staying, we had buses lined up to take them, we had everything done … it was a privilege and an honor to be able to help people who was in need. A lot of people, they needed love and compassion as much as they needed food when they came off the planes and heard what happened.”

Elliott said the planes carried people from 95 different countries, but most of them were American.

“We needed to be strong for the people that was there … everybody in the community, you know, came forward. And you know, the lady that made the sandwiches and the pot of soup, that job was just as important as the one that I did,” Elliott said.

Elliott admits when he heard two writers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, were interested in making a musical based on what occurred in the town of Gander about those few days, he said he didn’t understand how they would craft a musical about sandwiches, blankets, and pillows. He had also never seen a musical before.

“I made the comment to the staff that young couples’ headed for welfare,” said Elliott. “I don't know. I don't think they are ever going to make it you know. But I guess…the thing was, they knew what they were doing. They had the expertise. And as I look back today, they certainly captured this story, and couldn't have done any better than what was done.”

The musical officially opened on Broadway in 2017. Elliott has seen the show 93 times.

“To walk out on Broadway … it was only something that you have seen on TV … And then to sit in the audience and look at your story being told, and you being portrayed … It is not something that I ever envision in my life that would happen. We're just ordinary people livin’ the ordinary life. And in a small community where we know everybody by the first name,” said Elliott.

tour 2.jpg
Matthew Murphy
Performers in the North American tour of "Come From Away."

The show received rave reviews from Aikman as well.

“Anyone in the Midwest … understands that small town mentality, where it's reaching out to your fellow man. It's making sure that people are comfortable. It's making sure that people are taken care of especially during that moment in the world history where there was so much uncertainty and so many things that were, you know, everybody was concerned about, everybody was a little afraid,” said Aikman.

Although the story takes place in Canada, Aikman said it’s important that audiences in Peoria see it here, because 9/11 impacted everybody.

“And since it's about community it makes sense to bring it into every community so that they can kind of turn the mirror on themselves because that's what art does. It turns the mirror on you so that you can see the areas that you can as a community kind of embrace diversity, embrace differences, embrace change and persevere through it,” Aikman said.

"Come From Away" premieres in Peoria at the Civic Center on Nov. 2, and continues through Nov. 6. Tickets can be purchased here. For more information on season tickets and all the other shows included, visit the guild’s website.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.