NEW YORK – “Come from Away," the musical now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street, looks back at that harrowing day in our history, Sept. 11, 2001, and shows us how the tragedy of the day turned an island off the eastern coast of Canada – Gander, Newfoundland – into an emotionally uplifting spot for stranded international travelers.
When 19 hijackers attacked New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, killing 3,000 people, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down the airports in the United States and diverted 38 incoming trans-Atlantic planes to Gander, a quiet, woody and rocky terrain with a population of about 7,000 folks.
During World War II, this was a bustling community known as the “Crossroads for the World,” where the airport was a refueling stop for all trans-Atlantic flights. After jet-fueled planes arrived, Gander's notary disappeared and it returned to being a small rural town.
Then, on that September morn, the population doubled. Gander was filled with throngs of dazed travelers trying to figure out what happened to the world. The Gander citizens opened their arms and their hearts, assembling meals and opening schools and homes to provide beds and showers. The visitors turned out to be a motley crew from around the globe representing a variety of professions, like a corps of world-class cardiologists and a master chef from Egypt. Hindus mixed with East Africans and mingled with Orthodox rabbis. Also in the mix, a variety animals: dogs and cats and exotic band of Bongo chimps on their way to the Cleveland Zoo. For five days, Gander suddenly became a noisy rialto again. These Newfoundlanders were enlivened, suddenly welcoming to these strangers caught up in a strange sort of limbo.
Despite the grim sadness of 9/11, the musical is neither morbid nor mawkish: It shows how tragedy can be inspiring. It reminded me of the more serious play “Oslo,” now at Lincoln Center Theater, where the Palestinians and Israelis in far away Oslo got to know one another, tried to talk things out and almost succeeded in knitting a peace agreement together.Unlike the cynicism of the people of Grover's Corners in Thornton Wilder's classic “Our Town,” every citizen's actions in Gander says, "Welcome."
“Come from Away” is mostly sung like a folk opera. The book, music and lyrics are by a Canadian married couple, Irene Sankoff and David Hein. The music and lyrics are not particularly distinguished but are pleasant enough to get the story told in a traditional oral history kind of way. It’s done in a series of quick vignettes by12 actors playing multiple roles, visitors and townies. It’s a mix of Canadian actors; some from the original Canada production have been joined by such Broadway regulars as Jenn Colella, Joel Hatch, Chad Kimball and Caesar Samoya.
Each of the performers is a protean, capable of assuming many characters of many ages and conditions. Although they use little makeup and simple costumes, they create the illusion of a stage full of diverse local natives and visitors. For those five days, there were probably 14,000 people in Gander, and in “Come From Away” we get to hear about 60 or 70 of them in swift songs and sketches.
Each is brought to life briefly with truth and sometimes with humor by an actor. There does not seem to be angry or bitter person in the crowd, which at times makes the evening a bit undramatic.
One of the best-drawn characters is Beverley Bass, one of the airline pilots, who is ordered to divert her plane to Gander. She is played brilliantly by Ms. Colella and has a wonderful hearfelt song, “Me and the Sky," in which she laments that a plane was used as a bomb and tells her life story. Chad Kimball has a touching song titled "Prayer," dedicated to St. Francis.
The show has had a few years on the road and has been given a slick production by the experienced director Christopher Ashley. Kelly Devine's musical staging is woven into the production in a natural way, complimenting the down-home music of Ms. Sankoff and Mr. Hein. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt sets the show in the island's tree-laden forest, Toni-Leslie James' costumes are mufti-appropriate and Howell Brinkley's lighting makes Gander glow.
The good people who were thrust together in Gander are the focus of this musicial examination of life on this sad, historic day when the truth shines cold and bright and false values no longer hold. “Come From Away” is a touching positive postcard from the past from Canada's beautiful Newfoundland.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.