Review: “Come From Away”

Megan McGinnis (left to right), Emily Walton, Becky Gulsvig, Christine Toy Johnson, Julie Johnson and Daniele K. Thomas in “Come From Away.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Cadillac Palace
Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Aug. 18
Tickets: $35-$105
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

It may be hard to imagine a feel-good musical about 9/11, but the touring production “Come From Away” is one of the wittiest and most warm-hearted shows I’ve seen so far this year.

Married Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics—and whose only previous effort was “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding” – manage to weave together the account of a whole community coming together to face a crisis with individual stories that make it even more moving. They also illuminate the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath from a perspective most of us might not have known about were it not for them.

When U.S. airspace was closed in the wake of the attacks, 38 planes carrying close to 7,000 passengers were diverted to an airport in Newfoundland (once one of the world’s busiest in the pre-jet age when planes had to refuel), and the citizens of the small town of Gander and surrounding villages welcomed them with open arms. Based on interviews with both townsfolk and passengers, the musical recounts the events of several days, mostly in terrific Gaelic-inflected songs for the whole company, augmented by a few numbers for individuals and some spoken dialogue.

We meet the townspeople in the rousing opener “Welcome to the Rock,” followed by news of the disaster in “38 Planes” and rescue arrangements in “Blankets and Bedding.” The fear of the people on the planes, who don’t know what’s happening, comes through in “Darkness and Trees” and “On the Edge.” And so on through the sense of loss after the visitors leave in “Something’s Missing” and a “Finale” about the 10-year reunion.

This whole world—a microcosm of how we would like things to be—is amazingly created by an ensemble of 12 (plus eight first-rate onstage musicians) under the direction of Christopher Ashley.

Playing multiple roles, the actors switch back and forth between being Newfies and passengers from all over, a diversity reflected in their accents and minimal costume changes.

The individuals who emerge start with a pilot, Beverley (Becky Gulsvig), whose “Me and the Sky” details the love of flying that led to her becoming American Airlines’ first female captain in 1986. (Her last name is Bass, though it’s not given.) There’s also a gay couple, both named Kevin (Andrew Samonsky, Nick Duckart); an Englishman and an American woman, Nick and Diane (Chamblee Ferguson, Christine Toy Johnson), who strike up a romantic relationship culminating in “Stop the World,” and Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), who keeps trying to reach her firefighter son in New York and forms a lasting friendship with sympathetic local Beulah (Julie Johnson). Others range from the ASPCA rep who takes it upon herself to find and care for the animals in cargo, among them two rare chimpanzees, to a man whose offers to help with the cooking are rejected until it’s learned that he’s a chef for world-famous hotels.

While the stereotypes of Canadians being kinder, gentler, and more accommodating are reinforced, the sentimentality never becomes maudlin. The show doesn’t shy away from some of the more difficult issues, either, chief among them the suspicion of Muslims. True, the gay couple is arguably too readily accepted given the time and place, but like so much else, that’s tempered with humor. When a number of residents try to make them comfortable by mentioning gay relatives and friends, one of the Kevins quips that they’ve found the gayest town in Canada.

This consistent humor, which sometimes pokes fun at Newfies without being parody, is one of the surprising and most delightful aspects of “Come From Away.” It often tackles the incongruities and absurdities of the situation, be they big things like the delays in getting the planes back in the air or little ones like references to “Titanic” or who is going to clean the toilets. One comment that typifies the offbeat comedy occurs in a big box store. The greeter says, “Thank you for coming to Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?”

“Come From Away” is only here for a short time but is definitely worth seeing. Even if it’s as much fantasy as documentary, it could restore your faith in basic human kindness and the willingness of people to generously pull together when called upon to do so. One tip, though: Try to sit in the first ten or fifteen rows. Otherwise you may miss some of the lyrics and character switches.