UC Irvine Alum Jenn Colella Soared to New Heights for Her Tony-Nominated Role in the Broadway Hit “Come From Away”

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Photograph by Carol Rosegg

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 38 international flights were diverted to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. “Come From Away,” which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 before landing on Broadway early this year, tells the story of Gander residents and the nearly 7,000 stranded travelers they housed and fed. Jenn Colella plays multiple parts, most notably Beverley Bass, a pioneering pilot.

Now retired, Bass has seen the show more than 70 times. “I still get nervous when (Beverley) is in the audience. But we’re close friends. I always talk about how we’d never have met if it weren’t for the show—this sweet middle aged woman who’s a Republican pilot and I’m a Democrat lesbian.”

Colella’s powerful solo number from the show, “Me and the Sky,” is about Bass’ trailblazing career as the first female captain for American Airlines. According to Colella, the song inspired Bass’ daughter Paige, who was graduating college when the musical premiered, to change direction and become an airline pilot.

“A few weeks ago, Chelsea Clinton came to the show, and she said she’d come back with her folks. We assumed she was being nice. But she really did! They were so sweet. And the audience gave them a standing ovation. To sing directly to Hillary about women breaking glass ceilings was really something.”

The cast also got to perform for another memorable group. Before the start of the Broadway run, the performers traveled to Gander to put on a concert version of the show for two nights. About 5,000 people from around the island came to see the performances. “They were so proud to be represented. It was like we were reliving the (event).”

Colella says it was the show’s message of kindness that first drew her to audition. “There’s a number called ‘Prayer,’ where many people of different faiths find solace in the library. We all sing a song with different prayers mixed in. Moments like that really resonated with me.”

The musical has played to packed houses since its March opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning for Best Direction. “The six weeks between my nomination and the Tonys was a sprint. Luncheons and talk shows and eight shows a week. I was exhausted, but so thankful. I felt I’d been working my whole life for those six weeks.”

The actress has previously starred on Broadway in “If/Then,” “High Fidelity,” “Chaplin,” and “Urban Cowboy,” which was her first role after earning her MFA in acting from UC Irvine.

“I learned so much about who I am and who I want to be. And at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, they don’t have a program to mold one into a certain kind of actor; they give you exactly what you need. In 2002, I did a showcase with them in New York, and four months after that, they called me for ‘Urban Cowboy.’ UC Irvine was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.”

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