NEW YORK—The new Broadway musical “Come From Away” does far more than simply recall a horrific incident that changed most people’s perception of the world. The show makes you laugh and cry at the resiliency of the human spirit.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, all flights in or approaching U.S. airspace were diverted to the nearest available airfield. Thirty-eight of these planes, with a combined total of approximately 7,000 passengers and crew, wound up in Gander, a town in Newfoundland, Canada. For the next five days, the people of Gander took these strangers into their hearts and homes, offering them food, clothing, medicine, and anything else they needed. Many of the resulting relationships continue to this day.
Taking great pains to put a human face on this event, the musical shows a wide variety of people caught up in an unexpected situation, complete with all their worries, fears, anger, and suspicion that come with it.
As the show’s creators make clear much of their fear came from a lack of information. The passengers were kept on the planes for up to 28 hours without knowing exactly what had happened. The flight crews gave out as little information as possible in an attempt to lessen the tension. And this was before the time when the touch of a button on a hand-held device could bring immediate access to information. When the passengers ultimately learn what happened, it packs an emotional wallop.
But the seriousness of the situation is balanced with several unexpected moments of humor, as when buses carrying the passengers to a shelter come to a sudden stop when a moose blocks their path.
Among those stranded are Hannah (Q. Smith), a woman worried about her son, a New York City firefighter; Beverly (Jenn Colella), the captain of an American Airlines jet who sees her profession turned into a weapon of mass destruction; and Nick (Lee MacDougall) and Diane (Sharon Wheatley), two strangers from different continents who begin bonding over the tragedy.
There is also Ali (Caesar Samayoa), who experiences the prejudice many others will soon face because of what he looks like and how he dresses.
Each of these characters comes off as completely real, and the audience quickly finds themselves wanting to know more about these people and what happens to them.
It’s interesting to see how the passengers react once they understand what’s going on.
Some find a quiet respite in where they are, some are welcomed into the community as honorary Newfoundlanders—a process that requires kissing a freshly caught cod—while others want nothing more than to get back to familiar surroundings.
However, in a bitterly ironic twist, some find that what they once considered normal, be it flying or taking their kids to school, has changed forever. One young man (Rodney Hicks) who is initially cynical about everything, as shown in his constant fear of somebody stealing his wallet, finds himself recalling, once he’s back in New York, how much safer he felt in Newfoundland.
From the other side, the citizens of Gander quickly learn that it’s not enough to get people off of planes and into shelters. Hundreds of other details must be dealt with: baby food and diapers, prescription medication, dietary needs (that is, kosher and vegetarian), traveling animals, and in many cases, surmounting the barrier of language. A passage in the Bible provides a bridge in one such case.
But the townspeople rise to the occasion and put aside their own troubles—including temporarily calling off a local school bus strike—until the emergency is over.
The book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein are excellent; from the moment the play begins, they succeed in connecting us to the people of Gander, as well as to the passengers on the plane.
The cast, all of whom play multiple roles, are quite simply fantastic. Christopher Ashley’s direction is letter-perfect, and Kelly Devine’s excellent musical staging includes a rousing opening sequence that helps to establish a small-town atmosphere for Gander.
Alternatively funny and profoundly moving, “Come From Away” (Newfoundland slang for someone not of that area) is a brilliant example of all that musical theater can be.
Also in the cast are Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Joel Hatch, Kendra Kassebaum, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, and Astrid Van Wieren.
‘Come From Away’
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 W. 45th St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.