The first hearty laugh and cheer from the audience at Come From Away goes to mention of the Gander, Newfoundland, branch of Canadian fast food franchise Tim Hortons, where the locals daily greet each other with businesslike mentions of each other's name.
One result of the chaos of the closing down of American airspace was that 38 international flights containing 6,700 passengers were forced to land in Gander.
The locals threw open their school halls and their homes to "the plane people"—and this already much-praised La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, is the rollicking, all-singing and dancing distillation of what happened next.
Sankoff and Hein attended the 10th anniversary reunion of townspeople and passengers: hearing their stories proved to be the seed for a show that takes the 9/11 maxim of "never forget" and makes it a celebration of the best of humankind.
Before a full-tank of fuel could get a plane across the Atlantic, Gander was the stop-off point for international flights, so the airport there was hulking enough for the deluge, but not for many years had planes en masse landed there, and certainly not as en masse as they did that day.
Initially, gruff Canadian humor and goodwill rubbed up against the baffled sense of displacement of the passengers. Come From Away's talented 12-strong cast double, triple, and quadruple up as plane passengers and locals as this jaunty culture-clash soap opera, directed by Christopher Ashley, unfolds. There are few moments of stillness. Beowulf Boritt's simple set is made up of huge looming trees, with scattered tables, and chairs, and Howell Brinkley's lighting conveying wide open skies.
There is no grand trajectory to Come From Away, no one heart-tugging storyline, but a scattering of sub-plots threaded by collectively voiced song, exuberantly orchestrated as mostly soft-rock—with the occasional ballad—by August Eriksmoen and played by Ian Eisendrath's on-stage band. Kelly Devine's excellent choreography again emphasizes the collective, whether it's the drinking and weirdness unfolding on the planes before the passengers are allowed to disembark in "28 Hours/Wherever We Are," and the scale of the upcoming task becoming clear to the Gander locals, in "Blankets and Bedding."
Come From Away is more a rambunctious, musical exhalation rather than a deep and thoughtful examination. It's a snapshot of lives far from New York and D.C. in flux. 9/11 is not the show's focus or even default focus: it is simply the event that has brought these people together.
The show now finds itself in New York, site of the most iconic tragedy of that day—and a cheery rock-musical about 9/11 may not be the first theatrical choice for those to whom the city has long been home and who may have their own complex relationship to 9/11. For some, maybe the musical itself strikes a bum note: it is not set here, and it is not directly about the human tragedy of that day.
But Come From Away doesn't trivialize the events of 9/11 or seek to facetiously co-opt them. It is as simple in its focus as the acts of goodness and gratitude at its thematic core.
The goodness of people and the meaning of community is what is constantly reinforced, with very little tension to throw it into relief. Come From Away is Broadway's This Is Us: like NBC's hit family drama, this is a piece of theatre to make its viewers feel good about themselves and how we as a community, when tested, rise to the challenge: a soothing, uplifting piece of art for vexing times.
We meet Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren), trying to co-ordinate a mass relief effort, who befriends Hannah (Q. Smith), whose son is a missing fireman in New York, and who she is desperately trying to contact by phone.
There is a meet-cute love story between Diane (Sharon Wheatley) and Nick (Lee MacDougall), she a divorced Middle American housewife, he a nervous, bumbling Brit (are there any other kinds?) who finally kiss when he declines to kiss a fish during one raucous night out.
Kevin T. (Chad Kimball) and Kevin J. (Caesar Samayoa) are a gay couple, the latter the former's secretary, whose feelings of nervousness around their sexuality are neatly offset by other characters not being bothered, and having gay relations of their own. As the musical charts Diane and Nick getting together, it also follows the Kevins growing further apart.
There is a wonderful discursive moment, when Rodney Hicks, as Bob, a young black man, cannot believe the open-heartedness of the place he has landed in. Primed to be suspicious of people, he keeps his cell phone close and is wary of the kindness of a mayor who houses him (Joel Hatch, literally trying on the hats of many mayors, but principally Gander's Claude Elliott).
All too aware of the racism he typically faces and the suspicions of others based on the color of his skin, he is convinced—when asked to requisition barbecues from peoples' gardens for a cookout—that he will be shot. He is not. He is just invited in for tea. Similarly, the song "Prayer" becomes a hymn to multi-faith commonality: any more searching analyses of prejudice or fear are glossed over. Come From Away doesn't dwell or delve, it simply sings and dances on.
The Gander vet must deal with the travails of the exotic animals on the jets, including a pregnant bonobo monkey. Of the few solo numbers, the most memorable is Jenn Colella's "Me and The Sky," following the life trajectory—dreams, discrimination, family, respect—of 'Beverley', American Airlines' first female pilot.
It's not that Come From Away doesn't approach tricky themes, but without much agonizing, it shines a positive light on them. Ali, a Muslim, is shunned repeatedly until—out of frustration—he reveals he is a world-class chef, and wahey, he is welcomed finally, although in a postscript he is subjected to a humiliating body search when it comes time to leave Gander.
This a brave, sharp piece of plotting. Also notable is that one half of the 'Kevin' gay couple—the one not very interested in the community love-in—is also denied a storyline tie-up of his own. The butcher, Gander-embracing Kevin is the one we get to hear all about.
The best moments we share with Come From Away's characters is when they feel like characters, rather than types, such as the moments when Colella—as townsperson Annette—sporadically recalls the swooning encounters with a handsome Virgin Atlantic pilot played by Hicks.
Identity, and the trying on of new identities, is the show's predominant theme. What passengers and townspeople share is a feeling of liberating displacement that these few days of upheaval afford them all, whether it be dress or considering their lives, loves, and relationships anew.
Away from their daily lives, they can try on new clothes and new personalities, as in the passengers' song "Costume Party," and later, even though they are exhausted, the townspeople sing "Something's Missing" as they return to their daily lives.
And there on physically unforgiving and emotionally welcoming Gander, the evening's first number is also its last, as "Welcome To The Rock" sees the locals and "plane people" reunite for 9/11's tenth anniversary.
When the cast leave the stage to loud cheers (I have seen the show twice), the band stays on—and so does the audience, clapping and cheering to the very last twang of the guitar. From tragic source material, Come From Away has wrought a work that emphasizes goodness and shared humanity. Whatever your cynicism levels around how that may sound on paper, resistance to the show-as-performed is pretty futile.
Come From Away is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Book tickets here.