On September 11, 2001, soon after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked, the United States was closed to all air traffic. Flights from Europe already in the air were diverted to the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, which used to be a re-fueling stop before planes could fly non-stop from Europe to the US. It’s huge, and that was fortunate because all told 38 trans-Atlantic planes landed there.
For hours passengers on those planes sat in their seats or wandered the aisles. No one was allowed to deplane. Even worse, they had no clue where they were or why they were held up.
But once these tired, hungry, bewildered, frightened people set foot on the ground – all 6,579 of them – they were taken care of by arguably the friendliest, kindest most hospitable people in the world. Guided by the mayor and other town leaders the good people of Gander and surrounding towns set up shelters in schools and the Salvation Army. They cooked food, invited passengers into their homes for showers and to stay. They gave their clothes to passengers who were still in their skanky travel outfits because they couldn’t get their luggage off the plane. The supermarket in this city of just 10,000 threw open its doors and shelves – without charging anyone anything. Close friendships formed. It was five days and nights before any of the flights could fly off to their original destinations.
What happened in that time forms the plot of Come From Away, a heartwarming, funny, and altogether charming musical. The cast, most of whom play more than one character, is enthusiastic and uniformly terrific. Standouts are Jenn Colella as the first female pilot at American Airlines. She is confident and creates immediate intimacy with the audience. Q. Smith as Hannah, a woman who can’t reach her son, a fire fighter in New York, has a powerful song, “I Am Here,” and she makes the most of it. Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougal are delightful as the couple who fall in love. Kenra Kassebaum is terrific as a new-to-the-job reporter at the local TV station.
We rooted for everyone – laughed when they laughed and wanted to get up on the stage as they stomped to the Celtic folk-rock score (by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who also wrote the book) played by an 8-piece, on-stage band.
I had a really great time at Come From Away – but as a reviewer, I am obliged to ask, “Is Come From Away a great show?” The dancing (and staging by Kelly Devine) works, but does not stun with originality. The scenery (by Beowulf Boritt) is mainly a clapboard backdrop that also works but is nothing special. The songs are good, but far from memorable. The actors, as stated, are all very energetic and talented. This is a wonderfully entertaining show. But “great,” I don’t think so. Come From Away blew my heart, but not my mind.
That’s because the real star of Come From Away is the story and its people. They are better than great. I doubt I will buy the cast album, but I long to hang with the good citizens of Gander.
Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein; Directed by Christopher Ashley; Music supervision by Ian Eisendrath; Musical staging by Kelly Devine; Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting design by Howell Binkley; Sound design by Gareth Owen. With a cast of sixteen.