Ideally, Come From Away should be seen in the round, with the audience gathered so close by that it can share the claustrophobia, fear and love of all those grounded passengers. It’s a pity to be kept at arm’s length from a show that so ardently desires to embrace our common humanity.
The well-received 2017 Broadway favorite is making a stop on its first North American tour now at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.
Developed in workshops in Toronto and elsewhere beginning in 2011, this musical docudrama whisks us back to Newfoundland on the morning of September 11, 2001, to watch as the locals are caught in aftershocks from the World Trade Center holocaust.
With all U.S. air traffic ordered grounded at once, the small island of Newfoundland is forced to find room for 38 international flights and 7,000 unexpected guests. They meet that challenge with an admirable excess of compassion.
The book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein alternate between the emergency on the ground and the ongoing drama aboard the planes, retaining a sort of off-the-cuff spirit that works greatly in its favor.
At first, there is an “us vs. them” dichotomy in the presentation. The Newfoundlanders are painted as laid-back, small-town folks coping with the arrival of too many high-strung, big-city neurotics.
Gradually, though, the material focuses more on individuals with universal needs and their underlying humanity is allowed to emerge.
One dominant theme is how the fear of those who are perceived as different can easily turn to hatred, although that same fear can also dissolve with further contact. There’s a timely lesson in that for our own isolated, high-tech times.
The songs are folk-inspired and largely upbeat, from the foot-stomping tribal call of “Welcome to the Rock” to the exquisite pan-religious hymn of “Prayer” and the poignant balladry of “Somewhere In the Middle of Nowhere.” For a show about being lost and stranded, there’s a surprising amount of lively movement here.
Director Christopher Ashley manages to suggest the play’s major settings with just a nondescript backdrop, lighting cues and a stage full of chairs. Ashley gives us an evening of theatrical magic at its most basic and satisfying, forgoing fancy computerized sets and effects to let the audience exercise its own imagination.
Come From Away is the ultimate ensemble show, with a handful of performers bringing to life the play’s wide array of characters. The touring cast has been chosen more for versatility than star power, though all are fetching singers who do themselves and their show proud.
There’s something fundamentally spiritual about a true story given its full human voice. Like Titanic and Ragtime before it, Come From Away introduces us to a large cast of souls choosing love over fear. The heroic act of hospitality that occurred in Newfoundland in 2001 lives on now as an inspired and inspiring night of musical theater.
Running Time: About 100 minutes, with no intermission.
Come From Away plays through April 28, 2019, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center — 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them here.