When Come From Away made its Marcus Center premiere on Tuesday, audiences learned that Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, had traveled to the theater for the opening, and that she wanted to say a few words about the events of September 11, 2001, before the curtain went up. “What I remember is that during a period of crisis we came together,” she said. “ I hope this play will remind us all that we are neighbors and friends first and foremost.”
Come From Away is set in the tiny Canadian town of Gander in the week immediately following the September 11 attacks. It’s a musical that has almost uniformly delighted both critics and audiences since it premiered in 2013, raking in seven Tony nominations and one win. Ben Brantley, writing for the New York Times, gave it a glowing review, writing “Try, if you must, to resist the gale of good will that blows out of Come From Away … But even the most stalwart cynics may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.”
It’s also based on a true story.
When U.S. officials received word that four planes had been hijacked by terrorists, they declared the entire country a no-fly zone. At that point, 38 planes already in the air were diverted to Gander, a town of about 12,000 near the northeastern tip of Canada. The people there could have closed their doors to the weary travelers. But they didn’t. They leapt into action and began scouring the town for food, clothing and other necessities for the new arrivals. They also invited them into their homes until they were cleared to fly again.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who collaboratively wrote both the musical and the book, clearly respected their source material. They visited Gander on the ten-year anniversary of the attacks, when many of the travelers who had been stranded there returned to pay their respects to the locals who fed and sheltered them. And they took the time to interview many of the people in town for the anniversary, locals and outsiders alike, so that they could work their perspectives into the script.
The end result is a tight, 100-minute musical with no intermission that approaches its subject from dozens of angles, and perspectives. And, in spite of its weighty subject matter, it’s messaging is surprisingly uplifting.
This production owes much of its emotional payoff to the excellent ensemble cast. Each of the twelve cast members plays multiple roles, taking on the personas of pilots, bus drivers, local veterinarians, cooks, lovers and grieving mothers. To differentiate these roles, they change their clothes – and their accents – regularly, sometimes approaching each with more gusto than verisimilitude. But their energy and enthusiasm more than makes up for the slightly broad characterizations.
The songs are similarly bouncy and energetic, for the most part, with the earnest and expansive opening number, “Welcome to the Rock,” setting the tone for the rest of the show. A few of the slower numbers near the end of the show, most notably “Me and the Sky” and “Something’s Missing,” are standouts too, though. And audiences are all but guaranteed to find themselves clapping along to the finale.
Ultimately, like Dowdeswell’s message to the audience on Tuesday, this play is a touching reminder that – regardless of how divisive our world today has become – there are still more good people in it than bad, and we can still lean on our friends and neighbors in times of need.
Go See It: Come From Away plays at the Marcus Center through May 12.