Nestled in the northwestern part of the island of Newfoundland, lies the small town of Gander. In 2001, the population of Gander was 9,651. On September 11, 2001, that population increased by over 6,500 with people from virtually every corner of the globe.
The remarkable story of how Gander became a hub of international attention, and what happened in that sleepy town over the course of several days is the subject of the equally remarkable, genre-bending, Broadway-bound musical Come From Away written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (Book, Music and Lyrics).
Immediately after the events of 9/11, when U.S. airspace was closed, 38 planes were diverted to Gander. Disoriented, hungry, tired, and frightened, the thousands of passengers on those flights were welcomed by the residents of this strange and unfamiliar place and a community of strangers, brought together by unimaginable tragedy, came together, forged friendships that exist to this day, and even fell in love.
What makes Come From Away so different is that it doesn’t really adhere to any of the standard tenets of dramatic structure. It doesn’t have a discernible conflict. The actors tell more than they show. The score doesn’t build to an emotional climax. But what makes it different is also what makes it so very special. Sankoff and Hein seem to buck every rule of the musical theatre and the result is one of the most refreshing pieces of art that I have seen in years. The folk and country influenced pop score is tuneful and the cast sings the hell out of it.
Let’s be clear, this is no piece of September 11 agitprop. Come From Away is a celebration of the unflappable human spirit, and the generosity and kindness that always seems to manifest itself in our darkest hours. And it earns every tear, laugh, and cheer that it deservedly gets.
Working with a cast of 11, who seamlessly move between roles, Director Christopher Ashley keeps the show in constant motion on Beowulf Borritt’s rustic, moody unit set, which includes an effective, but judiciously used turntable. It is warmly lit by Howell Binkley. The transitions are fluid and expertly handled and the one hour and forty-minute running time flew by. Toni Leslie James’ costumes are versatile and punctuated by pieces that quickly define the characters- a delicate koofi here, a long scarf and stylish blazer there.
The opening number “Welcome to the Rock” sets a folksy mood as we are introduced to these Canadians whose lives are about to be changed. The score is a nice mix of ballads, and up-tempo numbers. Kelly Devine’s toe-tapping, rambunctious choreography adds, where appropriate, to the celebratory “triumph over tragedy” mood.
This is a true ensemble and, given the nature of the piece, every actor is given several moments to shine. Q. Smith is heartbreaking as the mother of a NYC firefighter who establishes a friendship with a local, played by Astrid Van Wieren. Broadway vets Jen Colella and Chad Kimball shine in several roles. Colella shows a delicate vulnerability to reveal itself beneath a confident exterior as the pilot of one of the grounded planes.
And there are moments of solemn beauty throughout. A scene where groups of Christians, Jews, and Muslims chant prayers simultaneously in English, Hebrew, and Arabic was particularly moving.
As we approach the 15th anniversary of September 11 and reflect back, it seems that we can group memories and tributes in to those of flag waving American bravado, fear mongering, and inconsolable sadness. Come From Away is none of those things. It is honest and sincere. Nary an American flag in sight. And it gives truth to these wise words of a young girl who also lived during a time of unspeakable tragedy, “despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Yes. Yes, they are.
Running Time: One hour and forty-minutes, with no intermission.