When’s the last time a musical began not with a Carillion-style fanfare of intent, but with the crisp, insistent pounding of a hand drum? Then a fiddle slashes in and things go Celtic — tight, rampant, like the pulse of American Pharaoh breaking free.
The raw, visceral sounds match the rustic set. Warped wooden rear wall and floor, three tables with mismatched chairs, and eight or so slender tree-trunks, with nary a leaf or branch. The cast and musicians don neo-Northwoodsy apparel, as if for an updated Our Town. But doesn’t Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s world-premiere musical, Come From Away, have something to do with 9/11? It does. And they found a manger of hope amid the devastation.
One of the oldest patterns in storytelling: a group of people withdraw from the world; they change, grow, and bond — and return somehow different, somehow fuller. In Brian Friel’s Wonderful Tennessee, three couples have a mystical experience on an island; in the movie Local Hero, an oil rep goes to the farthest tip of Scotland, goes native, and his home in Houston will never be the same; Shakespeare’s characters often go outside, be it to the Forest of Arden or Prospero’s island. In most cases they don’t understand what’s happening at the time. But when they re-enter the familiar world, they are more alive.
Come From Away is about an actual withdrawal to an island so remote, a character says, it’s “the farthest place you can get from Disneyland.” For a few harried, horrific days, weary, frightened travelers find themselves in a fleeting utopia.
Only the airport was ready, sort of. Until jet engines became the norm, Newfoundland’s Gander International YQX was the refueling stop for transatlantic flights. Since it could accommodate more planes than most airports, on the morning of 9/11 it was a principal site for Operation Yellow Ribbon. When U.S. airspace was closed down, 238 flights were diverted to Canada. Thirty-eight went to Gander, in part because of its capacity, and also because if there were terrorists or explosives onboard, officials reasoned, a small town would have fewer casualties.
The airport was almost ready, but how could the town — population 10,000-ish and only 500 hotel rooms — accommodate around 7000 travelers in holding patterns overhead? Some passengers remained onboard for an entire day. Since few had cell phones, they heard they were being diverted to Canada for “security measures” — something about “an accident in New York.” Officials refused to tell people from over 100 countries the truth.
So Sankoff and Hein have the story, but how to tell it? The scope boggles. But so does the ingenuity of their solution: the passengers are also the townspeople. Change a hat or a coat, slide chairs around, and anxious, jet-lagged tourists become the astonishingly generous citizens of Gander, who gave food, shelter, money, love, even barbecue grills without a second thought.
Thanks to an excellent ensemble cast with no weak links, individual characters come into focus like developing photographs. The actors are double cast and often play opposites (Rodney Hicks’s are suspicious and suave; Chad Kimball’s a local bus driver and a gay man named Colin; Caesar Samayoa is Colin’s partner and an Egyptian instantly profiled as a terrorist).
And, with few exceptions, all begin as strangers. In a funny and telling bit, the gay men go for a walk on a spinning revolve, as do Nick (Lee MacDougall) and Diane (Sharon Wheatley), who have shy eyes for each other. Some see stereotypes where compassion reigns. Then individuals come to realize that, at least on this island, they can be who they want. Differences break down and the disparate group becomes the “Plane People.”
The spirited music has a similar gathering. Except for Jenn Colella’s excellent version of “Me and the Sky,” and a few others, most songs don’t run straight through. Some circle around, picking up snatches of phrasing, or they frame a story and conclude with a defining restatement.
At times the comedy-within-a-tragedy feels almost too chipper, as when they play “kiss the cod,” given the havoc of 9/11. But to their credit, the authors don’t exploit the larger event. It remains just offstage and appears in the form of missing loved ones, burning questions, and the moving scene where the stranded group sees videos of the smoking towers for the first time.
Here and elsewhere, Howell Binkley’s lighting creates subtle auras. And mobile ones, because Christopher Ashley’s splendid direction and Kelly Devine’s choreography unfold the show like a single, kaleidoscopic dance sequence.
Prospero had his island; the ’60s their Woodstock. The Plane People had their Gander. Then they didn’t. One of the best parts of Come From Away: the makeshift miracle must end. Couldn’t they just “stop the world,” they sing, because “something’s missing.” And re-entry shock awaits, since the world has changed too. But this terrific new musical will pass on the spirit of their new found land.
Come From Away, book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Directed by Christopher Ashley; cast: Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, Jenn Colella, Chad Kimball, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Lee MacDougall, Amanda Naughton, Allison Spratt Pearce, Casear Samayoa, Q. Smith, Michael Turner, Astrid Van Wieren, Sharon Wheatley; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Garth Owen; choreography, Kelly Devine; musical supervision, Ian Eisendrath