As if you needed another reason in this grotesque political season to contemplate a move to the Great White North, along comes “Come From Away,” a musical packed with so much Canadian goodwill you’ll wonder why an entire province wasn’t awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
That maritime province, Newfoundland, is the benevolent locale of this heartwarming and eager-to-please musical, which had its official opening Wednesday night at Ford’s Theatre. Its most compelling character, in fact, is the place itself, and more to the point, the embracing spirit of a rough-hewn people who opened their arms and homes to 7,000 airline passengers marooned there on one of the worst days in American history, Sept. 11, 2001.
The 15th anniversary of the terrorist acts that resulted in 3,000 deaths in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington — and a fundamental change in the way Americans think about the world — occurs on Sunday. For anyone with even a faint memory of or connection to those events, the musical by the husband-and-wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein will reach into a place in your gut you may have wanted left undisturbed. My heart leaped into my mouth several times over the course of the hour and 45 minutes of “Come From Away,” episodes triggered by finely detailed depictions of the stranded passengers’ realizations of the scale of the horrors, and the townfolk’s small but meaningful acts of kindness toward the horde of strangers in their midst.
The musical, then, is about a channel of generosity that yawned wide on 9/11 in the town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 passenger jets were diverted and remained there, as the U.S. government shut down its airspace. Sankoff and Hein, who conducted interviews with both local residents and “The Plane People” and composed a score referencing the galloping Celtic rhythms and instrumentals of Newfoundland’s native music, want us to experience the transcendent goodness of Gander that they discovered. In the aftermath of the unspeakable, they and director Christopher Ashley seem to be saying, it is important to speak of humankind’s better nature. This feels especially consoling right here and right now, when, amid the noise of a rancid presidential campaign, the impulse in so much of our civic discourse is not to engage, but degrade.
The often amusing tale Sankoff and Hein spin, about the week in which the town rallied and the passengers from around the world intermingled (and in at least one case, fell in love), is not without its weaknesses. Musicals tend to benefit from a strong narrative spine; “Come From Away,” which invites comparison to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” suffers a bit from a lack of drama. With the exception of a New York mom (Q. Smith) awaiting news of a firefighter son missing at Ground Zero, the passengers’ chief worry is when they will be allowed to complete their journeys.
Although the musical touches briefly on interesting aspects of the passengers’ feelings — such as, their guilt at being so lovingly cared for, when other more consequential 9/11 victims were suffering — many of the self-
narrated stories here fall into the lower-grade category of tales of inconvenience. In the conjuring, too, of Gander’s collective rising to the occasion, the individual characters, while embodied in lively fashion by an altogether splendid cast of 12, remain rather schematic. Virtually every song in “Come From Away,” accompanied zestily by an eight-member band conducted by Ian Eisendrath, is an ensemble piece; only an American Airlines pilot, played and sung superbly by Jenn Colella, is accorded her own complete solo number, and you’re left scratching your head a bit as to why.
It’s as a unit that the dozen actors, with Ashley’s intelligent guidance, wring the most urgent emotionality out of the material. On Beowulf Boritt’s woodsy turntable set — some tables and chairs scattered in a Newfoundland forest — they all play both the plane people and the townspeople, the segues so persuasively seamless that one’s belief in the bonds that form is rewardingly underlined. Everyone’s good, but if asked to single out a few notables, I’d mention Joel Hatch as Gander’s mayor; Kendra Kassebaum as the local TV reporter; Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, playing a stubbornly assertive animal caregiver; and Rodney Hicks as a passenger gobsmacked by the local hospitality.
Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley apply a commendable lack of sentimentality to the roles of middle-aged passengers who make a romantic connection. And how refreshing is it that a Broadway-bound musical’s central love story goes to characters who might qualify for AARP membership.
Yes, “Come From Away” is headed to New York this winter, after an additional stop in Toronto and then a special pair of concerts in Gander itself. One wonders whether the story might be better served with slightly less emphasis on the logistics of sheltering the strangers and more on the characters’ lives. A gay couple, well played by Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa, for instance, might come more satisfyingly into focus if the nature of their unhappiness with each other were more incisively explained.
Still, if the book’s mechanics unfold with too much sugar, the score has an infectious, gritty vitality: Especially good is a number set in a Gander pub, choreographed by Kelly Devine, during which a risibly nutty local initiation rite is performed, involving the embrace of a recently caught codfish.
O, Canada!: “Come From Away” gives one the wholly comforting impression that when people talk of going to a better place, they mean you.
Come From Away book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreography, Kelly Devine; music supervision, Ian Eisendrath; set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Gareth Owen; orchestrations, August Eriksmoen; dialects, Joel Goldes. With Astrid Van Wieren, Geno Carr. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Tickets, $20-$73. Through Oct. 9 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit fords.org or call 202-347-4833.