NEW YORK — The lump that forms in your throat in the opening minutes of “Come From Away” — and remains lodged there for 100 buoyant minutes more — is the physiological confirmation that this effervescent musical, enveloped in Canadian good will, is an antidote for what ails the American soul.
Set in Gander, Newfoundland, just after hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, the musical, which opened Sunday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is about terrorism’s mortal enemy: love. The backdrop is a small Canadian town with an oversize airport where 38 jumbo jets were forced to land that day, as American airspace shut down and passengers and crews became the anxious wards of a local populace that proved itself born for the task of giving succor.
The alternating stories of the townspeople and the strangers in their midst — all played by a dozen superbly cast actors — are communicated vivaciously by book and songwriters Irene Sankoff and David Hein, in a bracingly kinetic production directed by Christopher Ashley, doing some of the most impressive work of his career. With the arrival of “Come From Away” to Broadway’s 2016-17 season, joining such accomplished new shows as “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” the Tony race for best musical of the year just got interesting.
“Come From Away” originated at La Jolla Playhouse, where Ashley is artistic director, and then made stops in Seattle, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington and Toronto on its way to Broadway. The intermediate steps have been enormously beneficial. They’ve given the actors crucial, additional time to absorb these ordinary characters fully into their bloodstreams. And Ashley, Sankoff and Hein have taken happy advantage of the opportunity to sharpen the humor and bind an audience more potently to the stories of, as one character puts it, “scared and angry people who don’t want to be here.” If there remain some saccharine moments, the authors also manage to poke fun at the Newfoundlanders’ almost super-human efforts at opening up their hearts and homes.
We’ve been exposed of late to impressions of Canada as an inordinately decent place. One has only to read about terrified immigrants, fleeing across the United States’ northern border in search of sanctuary, or to reflect on Canada’s vigorous and civilized prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to become sentimental about a place where generosity still seems to be a growth industry. Sankoff and Hein’s portrait of Gander will only intensify that longing. The musical is a true-to-life account, based on interviews and narrated by the characters themselves, of Gander’s mobilization in the days after 9/11, when 7,000 passengers from around the world were disgorged from the jets and had to languish there for days in a state of distressed limbo.
The lively score is rooted in Newfoundland’s Celtic-influenced music tradition and the rugged, life-affirming spirit of the “Rock,” as the locals call their remote maritime province. And it’s conveyed by a first-rate, eight-member band whose instruments include fiddles, mandolins, accordions and Irish flutes. When the townspeople and the plane people gather in a bar to drink the indigenous hooch and make a little innocent mischief, in a number titled “Screech In,” you might have the urge to whoop it up a bit yourself.
That inclination is encouraged by a cast that knits this assortment of thrown-together souls into a family. Exceptional contributions are made by Jenn Colella, as a pioneering female American Airlines captain; Kendra Kassebaum, playing the rookie local TV reporter; Rodney Hicks, as a traveler incredulous at the level of local hospitality; Joel Hatch, in the role of Gander’s mayor, and Sharon Wheatley, portraying a displaced Texan who finds love in the midst of chaos.
Everyone else is up to their level, so let’s just name them, too: Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Chad Kimball, Lee MacDougall, Casear Samoya, Q. Smith and Astrid Van Wieren. Beowulf Boritt’s woodsy turntable set and Howell Binkley’s lighting frame the actors simply and effectively, and the orchestrations and arrangements by August Eriksmoen and Ian Eisendrath, respectively, dynamically enrich the regional flavors of Sankoff and Hein’s songs.
Most people want to believe they’re capable of taking in stricken strangers, so just as anyone who has flown can easily project themselves into the roles of the stranded travelers, we also like to imagine we’d be as welcoming in a crisis as the people of Gander. That’s why this musical is so suited to this particular moment. Not as a mournful reminder of who we all might have been for one another, but who we are all meant to be.
Come From Away, book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Musical staging, 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. About 100 minutes. Tickets, $47-$225. At Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.