Come From Away: Oh, Canada
by JK Clarke
Ask any New Yorker what they think about an uplifting 9/11-themed musical and you’ll almost certainly get an angry glare. Many lost someone they knew that day, but even if they didn’t the trauma of that period is something they’d prefer to solemnly, quietly memorialize. So, the arrival of the new Broadway musical at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Come From Away—the story of the unexpected intersection of lives when 38 planes bearing nearly 7,000 passengers were suddenly grounded (and subsequently stranded for a week while US airspace remained closed) in Gander, Canada (an island off the coast of Newfoundland)—was bound to further furrow the brows and deepen the scowls of more than a few Gothamites. If you weren’t here, most locals will tell you, you simply couldn’t understand.
The show’s open does nothing to dispel those concerns. It’s a typical day in Gander (a town that’s like Canada’s Fargo without the grisly murders), townsfolk going about their small town lives: the local constable is making his rounds; the mayor is getting his usual morning coffee and donuts, greeting the regulars; a school bus strike is promising to disrupt the day; and parents are preparing their children for school. Then, of course, comes the Where-I-Was-When-I-Heard moments that pretty much everyone on the planet shares. It’s an inauspicious beginning. Yet, somehow it starts to work, as the stories are blended in with the first song, “Welcome to the Rock,” a catchy, heavily punctuated number that like many of the others consists largely of individual character comments linked together by an enthusiastic chorus. It’s a successful, oft-repeated formula that eventually has the audience fully engaged.
Logistically, that fateful day was a potential catastrophe (well, relatively) for Gander, a tiny remote town with an unusually large airport (an erstwhile refueling point for transatlantic flights). But the Ganderites are a special bunch. They harness their resources and roll out an impossibly warm, folksy welcome for the temporary immigrants, bringing many into their homes and making them honorary members of the community.
Reminiscent of last year’s Bright Star, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s book and lyrics for Come From Away lovingly paint a portrait of this community with Irish-folk inspired, tin whistle-flecked ditties like “Blankets and Bedding,” or “Screech In,” which invites those who’ve “come from away” to drink, celebrate and “become a Newfoundlander” by kissing a cod, amongst other alcohol-inspired behaviors. Every member of the audience wants to drink with these folks.
The heart of Come From Away lies not merely in the often touching and heartfelt (“Me and the Sky”), but mostly fun, musical numbers, but in the melange of personal stories, whose arcs are as varied as life itself: from the first female American pilot captain, Beverley (an excellent Jenn Colella); to the two passengers, Nick (Lee MacDougal) and Diane (Sharon Wheatley) who strike up a romance (beautifully expressed in “Stop the World”); to the Arab passenger, Ali (Caesar Samayoa) who becomes the object of fear and derision of other passengers before finally being accepted; to the gay couple (Chad Campbell/Caesar Samoya) whose relationship ends during the stay-over after they re-assess their lives.
Everyone in the cast plays numerous roles and for each role there is a story. By the end of the show, and their visit, we are emotionally invested in each story, so much so that their departure is cathartic. And for all their stories, the town folk are just as dynamic and fascinating, from the mayor (a charming and funny Joel Hatch), to Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren) who lovingly consoles a mother (Q. Smith) whose firefighter son has gone missing in New York City. The stories are too many to count and all compelling.
The purpose of terrorism is to infect a community with chaos, fear and disharmony. But what this production demonstrates, particularly through Christopher Ashley’s expert direction, is that the sum of Come From Away’s various stories and parts (from Kelly Devine’s musical staging/choreography to Ian Eisendrath’s overall musical sound) make a much greater, more beautiful whole. Just as the very idea of 38 planes dumping thousands of people on a small town in the farthest reaches of Canada should not have worked, the concept of a musical about 9/11 shouldn’t work. But the craft by which this story is put together takes the audience from almost dour at the outset to exalted when they walk out the door. Who won that day? Gander did. And by extension, so did humankind.
Come From Away. Now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). www.comefromaway.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy