“Come From Away” tells the story of the 9,000 residents of Gander, Newfoundland who took care of some 7,000 passengers and crew of 38 airplanes that were forced to land at the local airport because of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The production has gained fans for its foot-stomping Celtic-flavored music, the tight ensemble work of its 12-member cast, and its heartwarming view of humanity, as it’s traveled from La Jolla to Seattle to D.C. to Toronto. But now that it’s in New York, it has to deal with people like me.
As I wrote on the 15th anniversary of September 11th,I was across the street from the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001 when they were attacked. When an out-of-town friend visiting New York recently bought me a ticket to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, I couldn’t bring myself to go.
So I was worried that Come from Away would, in contemporary parlance, be triggering. But the exact opposite occurred. The Canadian song writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein are so eager to please that Come From Away keeps a safe distance from the horror of 9/11.
Come From Away focuses on the kindness of strangers, and how they ease the fear and inconvenience of the “plane people,” some 1,500 miles away from any real danger.
This is not really a “9/11 musical,” then, but it will certainly be seen that way. The question thus arises: Are we so battered by the trauma of actual events that the only stage depictions we welcome about them are feel-good entertainment?.
The answer seems to be yes, judging by the enthusiastic embrace of this musical. And Come From Away is certainly feel-good – also rhythmic, well staged, often funny.
Much of the humor is milked from the culture clash of the cosmopolitan passengers and their provincial hosts, which reminded me of the old TV series Northern Exposure, right down to a couple of jokes about moose. There is a ritual involving the kissing of a codfish and the drinking of a regional rot-gut rum known as Screech in a local pub. In another pub, a gay couple, both named Kevin, (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa), are cautious about their relationship in what might be redneck territory, but when they let it slip, they discover half the denizens seem to have relatives who are gay. Not a single one of the locals in the bar are themselves gay, and when one of the Kevins jokes “There must be something in the water,” one of the locals answers “That’s why I only drink the beer.” It’s a funny line, and an example of Sankoff and Hein’s general approach — even when they seem to be taking risks, they keep it safe and light. It’s an approach they took as well in their first musical, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which is based on Hein’s mother.
A married couple from Toronto, Sankoff and Hein interviewed both the plane people and the plain people of Gander to come up with Come From Away. Yet almost all the songs are ensemble pieces, and much time is spent telling us the mechanics of caring for so many people all at once: Required to refrigerate the food being trucked in, but not having a refrigerator big enough, they turn the hockey rink into one. Individual characters narrate their own stories, too, but there is little time left for any kind of deep character development. The most rewarding of these are probably Nick and Diane (Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley), middle-aged passengers who meet and fall in love. It’s refreshing that the requisite romance in this musical is between ordinary, older people, not an ingénue and a matinee idol.
If there are stand-outs in the cast, they are Jenn Colella (last seen on Broadway in If/Then) as the first female commercial airline captain (she’s one of the only ones to get a character-defining solo) and Joel Hatch (Annie, Billy Elliott) as the regular-guy mayor of Gander and of several other towns that pitched in to help. Caesar Samayoa (Sister Act, The Pee Wee Herman Show) deserves kudos for his quick-change from one of the Kevins to Ali, a Muslim cook who is viewed by everybody else with suspicion.
Petrina Bromley, making her Broadway debut, earns special mention as an actress actually from Newfoundland; among the characters she portrays is Bonnie Harris, the intrepid local head of the SPCA, who refuses to believe there are no pets on board any of the airplanes, and discovers not just dogs and cats, but also two rare monkeys, one of whom is pregnant!
But much of the appeal of Come From Away comes not from individual performances but from the precise and lively ensemble work, aided by an eight-piece band that attempts to recreate the folksy, uptempo music of Newfoundland, using fiddle, accordion, and such exotic musical instruments as uilleann pipes (bagpipes) bodhran (an Irish drum) and bouzouki (a Greek stringed instrument.) Director Christopher Ashley’s clever staging at one point turns a group of townsfolk into the air traffic controllers and then into the passengers of a single airplane, all done in an instant with Howell Binkley’s lighting and just a few chairs. With the seamless flowing of townsfolk into plane people and back again, it’s as if Come From Away is trying to say that, at heart, we are all the same. Or maybe the message of the musical is: Visit Newfoundland.
Come From Away is on stage at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 W. 45th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10036)
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