Great timing can sometimes be tragic. Come From Away is a musical about taking in the displaced foreigners after a terrorist attack. It unfortunately fits in quite well with the news from the past month. Currently in an extended run at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Come From Away tells the story of Gander, Newfoundland, a tiny Canadian which took in planes forced to land after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And while the very idea of a 9/11 musical may cause the body to involuntarily cringe, the Canadian writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein handle the story and music with a deft tenderness. It’s hard not to come away from Come From Away with a smile and at least a modicum of hope.
Thousands of planes were diverted from their courses and forced to land on 9/11. Because it used to be a refueling stop for transatlantic flights, Gander happened to have an unusually large airport for a city of its size. On that fateful day, 38 planes carrying around 7,000 passengers were sent to Gander International Airport and grounded, instantly more than doubling the town’s population. The welcoming spirit of the locals made the temporary asylum feel like home, and soon made headlines across the globe.
Employing a 12-actor ensemble cast, the show’s narrative threads move at a frenetic pace as each actor plays a variety of roles (both locals and passengers) and the scenes constantly change via the stage’s rotating platform. While there always being multiple people on stage, there's never confusion which role the actor is playing at any point because each character feels incredibly well defined. Everything flows smoothly despite the pace never letting up, often not even giving the audience moments for applause breaks after songs.
It’s impressive how the show’s creators managed to carve room for so many little personal storylines. The Gander residents sort through unexpected problem that that arise with such a massive influx of people to such a small place: from creative food storage (hint: think about Canada’s favorite pastime) to caring for the animals that were on the planes. In addition to the locals running around trying to keep things afloat, there are two divergent love stories: one between strangers who met while trapped in their plane (Nick and Diane) and another about a gay couple comprised of two Colins. There’s a passenger who overcomes his skepticism about the friendliness of his Canadian hosts while “rounding up” (seemingly stealing) grills for a cookout. Beverly, one of the pilots, is pioneer in female aviation, which gets explored in the song “Me and the Sky” (the same actress, Jenn Colella, has an even more fun role as a local with a Maria Bamford-like caffeinated energy that keeps letting herself get swept away in humorous fantasy about all the strapping men suddenly in Gander). There’s even one passenger is a mother of a first responder in New York City, and she struggles with the pain of being unable to get information on her child’s condition.
The songs have an invigorating folky tinge to them thanks to an eight-piece live band (that includes accordion and Irish flute). Come From Away doesn’t have a standout tune with the potential to get stuck in the audience member heads, but there’s also no music low point. A lot of clever storytelling in each song, and they all effectively tell the tale. Similarly, the cast manages to be deep and balanced. There are no star roles, but there are also no weak links.
It’s undeniable that Come From Away is a tad sugarcoated. There’s one Muslim character (an Egyptian chef), and while the other characters act apprehensive around him, there’s only one sub-30 second outburst of an old man berating him with Islamophobic speech. It almost seems to skirt over the issue, but dwelling on it wouldn’t fit the overall tone of the show, so it’s a somewhat justifiable choice by Sankoff and Hein.
While everything else is exceedingly hopeful, it’d take the most hardened heart to not open up to the show’s overwhelming positive spirit. Come From Away serves as a vigorous and uplifting ode to humanity in the face of terror.
Come From Away
Thru Dec 20, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $17–$110