Every September 11, America mourns the tragic events that astonished and saddened people around the globe in 2001: the attack on New York’s Twin Towers and Washington, D.C.’s Pentagon. Each year, at the site of New York’s disaster, a deep bell tolls as the names of the victims are read slowly. It will forever be one of the nation’s saddest commemorative events.
So it’s hard to imagine how anyone contemplating writing a musical comedy would dream up the scenario of Come From Away, which uses 9/11/01 as its starting point. The show tells the true story of how thirty-eight planes and nearly seven thousand passengers were rerouted from New York to the small town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada on 9/11. There the passengers depended on the kindness of strangers for food and housing for five days until airports in America were open again and passengers could be flown back to their original destinations.
And yet the Canadian husband and wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein managed to create a delightfully entertaining, humorous, credible work – book, music, and lyrics – in Come From Away. By primarily concentrating on the aftermath of the catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself, they were free to underscore the Gander residents’ capacity for kindness in the face of America’s tragedy.
A relatively small cast of thirteen actors first take on the roles of typical residents of Gander and nearby towns. There is the mayor of Gander, a school teacher, a bar owner, a TV news reporter, etc. Together they sing “Welcome to the Rock” with appropriate self-deprecating humor, admitting to the world that Newfoundland is essentially made up of forest and rock that is millions of years old. Shortly thereafter, we meet the passengers, played by the same actors, a shift that requires instant, total transformations to illuminate different personalities.
The company sings every number except for “I Am Here,” which is sung alone by Hannah, a mother whose son is a firefighter in New York. Danielle K. Thomas plays Hannah as a strong woman who is slowly breaking down with every minute that her phone won’t connect her to her son. Thomas’s vibrant soprano expresses everyone’s need for connection to his or her loved ones.
Marika Aubrey plays the pilot, Beverly, who sings about how she always wanted to fly. Accompanied by the Female Company, she sings “Me and the Sky,” which almost turns into a predictable hymn for women’s liberation, but is saved at the final moment when Beverly remembers the context of where she is and what has brought her there.
Kevin Carolan turns in a strong performance as the Mayor of Gander. Harter Clingman is entertaining as Gander’s policeman, Oz. James Earl Jones II gives an explosive performance as a New Yorker who arrives trusting no one and leaves a different man. Nick Duckart is outstanding in the dual roles of Kevin J. and Ali, the Egyptian passenger, whom no one trusts. The role of Ali is one that should be expanded. Duckart has a fine voice and deserves a solo.
Christine Toy Johnson is charming as the cheerful divorcėe from Texas who falls in love with another passenger. Sharone Sayegh is delightful as the Gander representative of the SPCA, who cares only for the animals she finds in the cargo hold of a plane.
Happily, director Christopher Ashley keeps this musical moving very fast so that there are no places in it that can slide toward the mawkish. Kelly Devine’s musical staging keeps everyone dancing or walking very quickly and with purpose. Dialect coach Joel Goldes manages to make the Newfoundlanders’ accents accessible to the American ear.
Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design is simple and suggestive. He creates a backdrop of white horizontal slats slightly separated from one another through which different colors can be displayed (Howell Binkley, lighting design). When the backdrop is dark blue, it can be covered with stars; when it is light blue, it can show clouds. In front of the backdrop are huge trunks of trees, stage left and right. Rustic wooden chairs and small tables are moved on and off the set by the actors.
Costume designer Toni-Leslie James creates contemporary clothes for both the passengers and the people of Newfoundland. Beverly wears an official airline outfit; the passengers are stylish; the Newfoundlanders’ clothes are unremarkable.
Come From Away begins with a loud drum beat, beginning what sounds like a Celtic song. In fact, under conductor Cameron Moncur, that Celtic spirit continues throughout the musical, created by a band sitting at the rear of the stage, consisting of violin (Kiana June Weber), mandolin (Martin Howley), acoustic bass (Max Calkin), percussion (Steve Holloway, Ben Morrow), whistles (Isaac Alderson), and acoustic guitar (Adam Stoller). The music effectively blends folk and rock and binds the show together. Except for Hannah’s quiet promise to her son (“I Am Here”) the majority of the songs are upbeat and stress the happier side of the passengers’ predicament, rather than the gloomier side of their fate.
Come From Away doesn’t begin to touch on the aftermaths of 9/11. But that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to show how, in 2019, when foreign-born visitors to America are often suspect and many are turned away at the border, there can be another way. Its purpose is to illustrate the fact that in 2001, there was a place and a people who celebrated hospitality, who gladly welcomed strangers into their homes without knowing anything about them.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
Come From Away plays through January 5, 2020, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or go online.
August Eriksmoen, Orchestrations; Ian Eisendrath, Music Supervisor; David Brian Brown, Hair Design