The events of 9/11 still strike a raw nerve within the national psyche. The books, movies, and television programs that have been rolled out over the past 16 years have been graphic and numbing. Their blunt, straightforward portrayal of that morning have been, for the most part, unvarnished and overpowering. The unintended consequences has been a separation, a significant chasm that precludes our mind from fully processing that tragic episode in American history.
Come From Away, the new Broadway musical, approaches that Tuesday in September differently. The show relates the true story of how an abandoned airfield in Gander, Newfoundland in Canada suddenly became the pit stop for dozens of commercial airlines when the United States airspace was closed because of the attacks. In aviation history Gander was the central refueling depot for planes crossing the Atlantic. With the advent of jet propulsion the Gander locale became an abandoned footnote, until that fateful day when the population of the small town grew overnight from 9,000 to 16,000 residents. The musical relates how the townspeople and “plane people” reacted, adapted, and came together over a five day period of time. It humanizes the events of 9/11 through personal stories, song and dance. The result is a show that is uplifting, funny, and forlorn. It is a joyous celebration of life and the human spirit even as the very fabric of our lives was upended.
Librettist Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a well-structured narrative where the cast portrays a multitude of roles from stunned and shaken airline passengers to the average man and woman on the streets of Gander. The husband and wife team focus on the determination of everyone to make an unthinkable and untenable situation work. This optimistic attitude is carried throughout the show. Some would-be audience members might think any art form with 9/11 as the backdrop would be maudlin and depressing. But Sankoff and Hein’s book for the show is more heartening and inspirational. Are there moments when the tissues come out? Sure, yet they are offset by humorous and tender moments that make you want to stand and cheer.
The ensemble cast is full of individuals you would find at any main street diner. They exude their own can do spirit as they forcefully take hold of the material with a dynamism and drive that is heartfelt and genuine. Every one of the actors and actresses fit so well together. If there was a Tony Award for Best Ensemble Come From Away would be the hands down winner. Three of the group that do deserve mention are Jenn Colella, who primarily portrays the gritty pilot of one of the diverted planes; Joel Hatch, who’s main character is the unflappable mayor of Gander; and Astrid Van Wieren, who’s central role is as the levelheaded, problem-solving school administrator.
The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is a mix of haunting and soul-searching compositions and exuberant melodies that joyfully reverberate throughout the theater. Tinged with the Irish roots prevalent in this northern Canadian province, they are almost all ensemble pieces. The songs are performed by a tight knit, boisterous band that would be welcome at any Emerald Isle drinking establishment.
Director Christopher Ashley does a superb job with the flow of the cast as they assemble from one scene to the next. There is a good deal of logistics involved as chairs forming the interior of a jetliner may quickly become the setting for the neighborhood bar or coffee shop. He keeps the pacing quick without rushing the storyline. Under Ashley’s guidance, the transformation of the actors and actresses from one character to another is skillfully executed. Gratifyingly, the overall effect allows the audience to slowly absorb the impact of what is happening without a preachy or moralistic tone. The integration of the musical numbers, under the musical staging of Kelly Devine, is organic, developing naturally and mirroring the action on stage. The dancing is buoyant and lively and reflects the down-to-earth nature of the towns folk.
Beowulf Boritt’s Scenic Design is spare with, for the most part, tables and chairs, serving a variety of functions. A smart choice. Anything more elaborate would have lessened the pace of the show and tethered our imagination.
Come From Away, an absorbing and moving musical that will leave you searching for words of praise.