Tuesday, September 11, 2001 is not a day many of us willingly return to. When we do – especially those of us in New York City and Washington – it’s with a shudder, still, and tears, and the sense memories of shock, disbelief, fear and helplessness that all too readily return. We also remember, even celebrate, the acts of heroism and sacrifice in the days following the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers, destroyed part of the Pentagon and turned a Pennsylvania pasture into a burnt-out killing field. But it’s hard to imagine a Broadway musical emerging from those ashes, especially one that makes as joyful a noise as the charming and emotionally resonant Come From Away.
“Welcome to the Rock,” the show begins, with a chorus of morning people in a Tim Horton’s café right out of Twin Peaks. The Rock, we soon learn from the Mayor, is Newfoundland, “on the northeast tip of North America,” where “there’s an airport – it used to be one of the biggest airports in the world. And next to it, is a town called Gander.” That airport dated from the time when trans-Atlantic flights needed a refueling station; time and technology have long-since passed it by, leaving a sleepy town and its near-deserted stopover. The locals seem just fine with that.
All of which changes on the morning of September 11, 2001, when 38 flights, carrying nearly 7,000 passengers and crew, were diverted to Gander when the U.S. airspace was closed in the wake of the attacks. Come From Away tells the remarkable story of how the town responded when its population was doubled in the blink of an eye. With open arms and hearts, plenty of love and alcoholic lubrication, public barbecues and open private homes, shelter, clothing and perhaps above all, patience and empathy, strangers were welcomed. And, with the rest of the world, everyone began to absorb the horror of events to the south.
David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the husband-and-wife team who wrote the book and score, are the authors of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding – which turns out to have been autobiographical. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, they visited Gander and spent several weeks interviewing the people whose avatars now fill the stage of the Schoenfeld Theatre. As with A Chorus Line, Come From Away weaves the true stories of real people into a compelling tapestry; unlike the 1975 landmark musical, Come From Away is not about cutthroat competition but its mirror image, cooperation.
All of this is unfolds on Beowulf Borritt’s set, comprising little more than a few chairs and tables against a slatted black wall, atmospherically lit by Howell Binkley. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes capture, without condescending to, the show’s semi-rural aesthetic. Come From Away speaks the common language of just folks, and it sings and dances with the authentic inspiration of Newfoundland’s Celtic-based music, suffused with the hypnotic thrum of the bodhrán, the adrenalin rush of fiddle and strings, the soaring lilt of whistles and Uilleann pipes and the soulful underpinning of a harmonium.
Hein and Sarnoff are not Sondheim. The folksy songs in Come From Away are nearly all expository rather than revelatory (a key exception being the coming-of-age number “Me And The Sky,” sung with perfect fervor by Jenn Colella as Beverley Bass, the first female captain of a commercial airline). The show, staged with kinetic enthusiasm by Christopher Ashley with Kelly Devine, positively reeks of integrity – positive being the operative word. In the company of 16, nearly all play multiple roles. The standouts, in addition to Colella, are Kendra Kassebaum as a novice reporter, Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa as boyfriends named Kevin, Rodney Hicks as a skeptic finally undone by generosity, and Astrid Van Wieren as a voice of reason.
Come From Away eludes the jaded critic’s arsenal of dismissive thrusts. It’s necessary balm for this mean time.