If you’re an out-of-town visitor to New York looking for a feel-good night of theater, then Come From Away is surely recommended. This new musical tells the true story of how the residents of Gander, a Newfoundland island community of some 9000 people, responded with unparalleled Canadian hospitality to 7,000 stranded international passengers whose planes were diverted when the U.S. airspace closed on Sept. 11, 2001. In 100 heartwarming minutes, the show sets the best aspects of human nature to infectious Celtic folk and Broadway rock. If you are visiting from Canada, as it appeared much of the audience was the night I attended, this recommendation goes double for you: An early joke about Tim Horton’s sailed over my head, but alighted with precision on the funny bones of those nearby.
But if, like me, you’re a New Yorker who has lived in the city 16 years or longer, you might first ask yourself: I am I ready for a feel-good musical about 9/11?
To be fair, Come From Away isn’t about the most ghastly aspects of that day. Rather it is about the goodwill on display in Newfoundland following horrific events that had just unfolded elsewhere. It is a 9/11 story in which no one onstage dies nor witnesses a building’s collapse firsthand. There is, however, a stomach-dropping moment when the ensemble simulates watching TV footage of the attacks. To be sure, the travelers respond appropriately once they grasp what has happened in New York, at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field. And later a pilot sings achingly of how the “thing I loved more than anything was used as the bomb.” (The character, Beverley, played by Jenn Colella, is modeled on Beverley Bass, American Airlines’ first female captain, whose Paris-to-Dallas route was diverted to Gander.)
But, save for one woman who cannot get in touch with her NYC firefighter son, our travelers are, at worst, disoriented by and inconvenienced by being made to spend their first full day in Canada on grounded planes, a scene played for laughs. Surprisingly, it succeeds, as the passengers get sloshed on mini bottles of booze and sing along to the theme from Titanic. (A modern addendum to Chekhov’s gun rule: If you have a tin whistle in the on-stage band at the start of a show, expect to hear “My Heart Will Go On” before the final curtain.) Did I laugh at their tipsy antics and gentle poke at Quebec’s most famous chanteuse? Of course. But as the “plane people” struggle to find out why they are stuck here — remember, in 2001 cell phones were still uncommon, and service was spotty after the attacks — my mind drifted to the incidents that eventually resulted in their on-board punchiness, and I felt anew the day’s dread.
Eventually the passengers are deplaned, without their luggage, and sent to schools and other public buildings, as Gander and the surrounding towns didn’t have near enough hotel rooms. Friendly locals stock the shelters, suspend hockey games to turn the rink into a giant refrigerator, and eventually open their homes to the strangers for hot showers and hot meals. They are particularly proud of a regional specialty, cod au gratin, which is explained accurately to an appalled Middle Eastern traveler as “fish with cheese.” When he offers to help with the cooking he is turned away from the kitchen, one of several indications of friendliness towards all pierced by wariness towards some.
Besides weaving those then-new tensions and prejudices into their story about our better natures, the show’s creators, the Canadian husband-and-wife team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff, have set for themselves a unenviable challenge — to make engaging musical numbers from the following situations: Idling on a tarmac; stocking up on toilet paper, tooth brushes, diapers and tampons at a chain store (“Shoppers,” which again made those seated near me titter in regional recognition); and experiencing the unsettling sensation of wearing strangers’ donated clothing when your own is stuck in the hold of a 737. Hummable tunes aren’t really the point here, but the music is confident and lively, and the direct, if not necessarily poetic, lyrics keep the character-based story moving at a pleasant clip.
But the bigger hurdle that Come From Away would seem to face is one of staging: How to depict a town nearly doubling in population overnight. Suddenly in this homogeneous island community there are orthodox Jews, observant Muslims; gay, vegetarian Angelinos; a Brit and a Texan (who meet cute); and one cynical New Yorker who finds the hospitality to be suspect. There are Spanish-speakers and French-speakers and two Swahili-speakers terrified by the sight of volunteers in Salvation Army uniforms. On film, you could enlist thousands of extras of every ethnicity. Here, the creative team and director Christopher Ashley deploy a nimble cast of 12 in multiple roles, as both Islanders and foreigners, indicating the shifts with a quick addition or subtraction of a piece of clothing or an accent. (This is truly an ensemble piece, so rather than mention individual performances, it feels right to give a rare shout-out to a dialect coach: Joel Goldes had performers skillfully switching in and out of Newfie speech, which sounds a bit like an Irish brogue by way of Fargo.)
Besides being an economical choice, the double-and-more casting underscores Come From Away’s people-are-people theme. The point is struck somewhat heavily at times. But when the show threatens to feel pat — our opposites-attract travelers fall in love in the space of five days! The Rabbi’s kosher cooking feeds Hindus, Muslims, and the vegetarian couple! — it helps to remember this all actually happened. The feel-good events, currently being reenacted roughly four miles from the World Trade Center site, are as much a part of our shared 9/11 narrative as those that still give many nightmares. B+