Review: ‘Come From Away,’ a Canadian Embrace on a Grim Day
Try, if you must, to resist the gale of good will that blows out of “Come From Away,” the big bearhug of a musical that opened on Sunday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. But even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.
“Come From Away” — set, you should know, on and after the world-shaking date of Sept. 11, 2001 — pushes so many emotional buttons that you wind up feeling like an accordion. That does not mean that you’ll leave thinking you have been played.
Jenn Colella, left, in the musical “Come From Away,” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
For this Canadian-born production, written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein and directed by Christopher Ashley, is as honorable in its intentions as it is forthright in its sentimentality. And it may provide just the catharsis you need in an American moment notorious for dishonorable and divisive behavior.
“Come From Away” sounds like a show that most New Yorkers would run a city mile to avoid. I mean, come on guys, a feel-good 9/11 musical created by a husband-and-wife team whose most notable previous credit was something called “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding”? That’s a self-spoofing concept that might have come up in a “Saturday Night Live” brainstorming session, and been rejected on the grounds of bad taste.
Still, timing is to theater openings what location is to real estate pitches. (Remember, that dancing klutzburger “Mamma Mia!” became the perfect escapist hit in the fall of 2001.) Even a few years ago, “Come From Away” — which portrays the efforts of a town on Newfoundland island to accommodate the 6,700 travelers whose planes were diverted there after the 9/11 attacks — might not even have made it to Broadway.
But we are now in a moment in which millions of immigrants are homeless and denied entry to increasingly xenophobic nations, including the United States. A tale of an insular populace that doesn’t think twice before opening its arms to an international throng of strangers automatically acquires a near-utopian nimbus.
“A production of Come From Away” in New York in February. Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
So does the reminder that there was a time when much of the Western world united in the face of catastrophe. And when politicians who have since become the butts of jaded jokes (hey there, Rudolph Giuliani and Tony Blair) stood tall as leaders of substance.
It is telling that when, in “Come From Away,” an actor briefly impersonates George W. Bush, delivering a broadcast announcement, there’s not a titter from the audience. This is a show without a satirical bone in its robust, rough-hewed body.
That body is also surprisingly agile. Mr. Ashley and his musical staging director, Kelly Devine, have steered their multicast, 12-member ensemble through a rushing, sung-and-spoken narrative that has them changing parts (and accents) on a Canadian dime.
The performers are required to embody the good citizens of Gander (and nearby villages), a small town with a big airport in Northeast Canada, where 38 planes were forced to land after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The same cast plays passengers and crew members on those flights, who find themselves stranded in Gander.
They inhabit a set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) populated by tall trees, simple wooden furniture and a folksy onstage band that could easily do double duty for a “Riverdance” reunion. Ms. Sankoff and Mr. Hein, who wrote the music as well as the book and lyrics, know that there’s nothing like a steady Gaelic drumbeat and a lilting pennywhistle to turn a skeptical audience into Pavlov’s slobbering dogs.
Does this description make you think of that blockbuster tear-jerker “Titanic” and its wailing theme song “My Heart Will Go On”? The creators of “Come From Away” are way ahead of you. They quote from that number early in the show, when the movie is screened to grounded airline passengers and then later in a karaoke sequence in a Legion hall.
“Come From Away,” in other words, is smarter than it first appears. The show starts off in a grating key of deep earnestness, as a chorus of Ganderians step to the edge of the stage to deliver an anthem of hearty regional identity. (“They say no man is an island, but an island makes a man.”)
But as it proceeds, the show — based on interviews with the people who inspired it — covers a vast expanse of sensitive material with a respect for its complexity. It understands that much of what it portrays is guaranteed to stir fraught memories among many of us. And it mostly refrains from overegging what could have been a treacly, tear-salted pudding.
Instead, it sustains an air of improvisational urgency, which feels appropriate to a show about making do in crisis, and it doesn’t linger on obvious moments of heartbreak and humanity. (My favorite instance of a Newfoundlander reaching out comes when a woman, played by Kendra Kassebaum, says: “Thank you for coming to Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?”)
This is true whether the cast is simulating the terror of emergency landings, or the agitated briskness of citizens arranging food and lodging for an onslaught that almost doubles their town’s population. Amid the surreal blur of activity, people fall in love, break up, learn of the deaths of loved ones and realize that the world will never, ever look the same again.
The performers — who include the appealing Broadway veterans Jenn Colella, Chad Kimball and Rodney Hicks — refreshingly come in assorted shapes, sizes, ages and skin tones. As both Newfoundlanders and their visitors, they manage to convey clearly separate, idiosyncratic identities.
Are there moments that feel a little too heartwarming, like a rustic Canadian bar’s reflexive acceptance of a gay couple (Mr. Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) who nervously wander in? Sure. But the show also makes room for lingering prejudices — most notably regarding Muslims — and the sense that the altruism that arises in a crisis may evaporate as soon as the crisis is over.
In recent months, some Americans have spoken wistfully (and unrealistically) of moving to Canada, where people are kinder, gentler, more accepting of others. “Come From Away” allows you to make that move for an eventful 100 minutes.
But it also reminds us that the fellow feeling and good behavior of the days it portrays belongs to an isolated island in time. What follows is the sobering awareness, as one song has it, that as the afterglow recedes, “wherever you are, something’s gone.”