Last week, the Canadian Consulate began celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Federation of Canada by inviting some 600 guests (including your intrepid blogger) to see Come From Away, the new musical that opened at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre.
If you’ve read any of the reviews about this work, you’ve probably seen it described as big hearted, heart warming, feel good… which it is – all without being treacly or sentimental. The plot revolves around true story of the almost 7,000 passengers from around the world who found themselves stranded in Gander, Newfoundland and surrounding towns on September 11, 2001. The opening scenes convey the sense of chaos that prevailed on that day (and many of the following) not only in Gander, but around the world, as US airspace was closed, and every person and aircraft that would be traversing it was treated as a potential weapon. A small town with a huge airfield (until the advent of long-haul aircraft, flights to Europe would refuel in Gander) has to figure out how to cope with the sudden influx of people from around the world who need food, shelter and information. Plus a pregnant chimpanzee and other animals.
Then there are the passengers on 38 planes who find themselves far from their final destinations, with no information as to why or how long they would be stuck on the planes or in Gander.
Through the stories of a few characters, the play gives us a window into the wider events on the ground: the Mayor of Gander, who has to scramble to create accommodations for the newcomers; the American Airlines pilot whose pride in her profession has been profoundly shaken by the weaponizing of airplanes; a master chef from Egypt who is ostracized and treated as a potential terrorist; and the mother from New York City trying desperately to contact her son, an NYC firefighter. But there is also a more comforting, joyful side to this tale, as the locals volunteer at the makeshift shelters to cook for these strangers, and even invite them into their homes. There’s an especially fun scene where the newcomers become honorary New Foundlanders (alcohol and cod kissing are involved). After a few days, the strangers board their planes to their ultimate destinations, but the bonds created with the townspeople remain strong, despite time and distance – a reunion was held in 2011. (The play is based on interviews the playwrights held in Gander on the 10th Anniversary commemoration)
The cast of 16 does yeoman’s work, each taking on several roles as both passengers and townspeople. I liked the use of the revolving stage to move from one scene to another. And the score, inspired by Cletic-based Newfoundland music, is played by an outstanding 8 piece ensemble.
Don’t come expecting high drama or show stopping tunes – this is the story of common human decency and generosity in extraordinary circumstances, and the book and score are in that vein, with characters rendered in broad strokes. I was very glad that the play isn’t sentimental, although every now and then it dances close to the edge. But you’ll leave this charming musical – with book and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and a first rate cast – feeling uplifted, but also with a sense of the loss that is never far from our happiness.
So get over to the Schoenfeld Theatre and see Come From Away as soon as you can!