People who need people are the luckiest people in the word — if they land in Gander when they’re especially needy.
That’s the heartwarming message that COME FROM AWAY, the excellent new Broadway musical, imparts. That it achieves it with full-on honesty, sentimentality of the highest order and humor is all the more remarkable.
For the show begins on the morning of September 11, 2001 and takes us through the subsequent five days of that harrowing week.
That tells you the “when” or the show; now where’s the “where?” Gander is in Newfoundland. Some may then inquire “And where is Newfoundland?”
Six hours away by plane, nearly 1,500 miles away from what would soon become known as Ground Zero.
Gander’s airport used to be busy once upon a time, when flights from Europe needed a place to refuel. However, once technology allowed planes to hold enough gas – making a pit-stop unnecessary — Gander International became as obsolete as the Bates Motel once the new highway was surpassed by a nearby superhighway. “Now when you set down in Gander,” says one townie, “it’s an emergency.”
And here was a genuine one. With all U.S. airspace closed, 38 commercial airplanes that had been on their merry way to America found Gander their only option.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Broadway newbies and a Canadian married couple, concentrate on one American Airlines flight from Paris with 12 travelers who meet 12 townspeople. In olden days, 24 actors would have been hired, but you know Broadway 2017 economics: one size fits all. The dozen performers here do at least double duty, and some play as many as eight characters. (Different accents keep us from confusing the Americans with the Canadians.)
Because of blood-red tape, the passengers couldn’t immediately deplane, and so they spent 28 – yes, 28 — straight hours on the runway without any access to their stowed-away luggage – which, for some, included medicine. (Remember all this the next time you’re sitting on the tarmac for a half-hour.)
Cell phones weren’t yet as plentiful as they are now. Those that were weren’t smart enough to reach America from faraway Canada – “the edge of the world,” as one townie put it. Communication was far more difficult still for passengers for whom English wasn’t even a second language, but no viable language at all. This leads to a magnificently heartwarming moment with the Bible, a book that tends to make an appearance in times such as these.
The sudden emergency made the airplane into its own mini-melting pot, what with its many races, colors and creeds suddenly thrust together. And with Hurricane Aaron on the horizon and a bus strike to boot, the arduous circumstances sometimes made that pot boil over. Sankoff and Hein couldn’t have known when they started writing that their including a Muslim character would wind up a current hot potato, thanks to our current administration.
What may startle most audiences is how the Gander populace default mode was immediately willing to help, no-questions-asked, in any and all ways they can. In a burg of 10,000, almost 7,000 accidental tourists certainly made this 40-square-mile burg seem awfully crowded.
And wouldn’t you know that the passengers, when not incredulous at the kindness of strangers, were downright suspicious once they were invited into the Gander residents’ homes? (“Where are the ‘red states’ in Canada?” one gay man fearfully wondered.) Because, as the captain said, “We’ll be here for some time,” they had days upon days to get to know one another, assess values and rethink philosophies. The refugees also learned that Gander has its own special charms as they experienced the most atypical “vacation” of their lives.
Both the female pilot (the always winning Jenn Colella) and Hannah (beautifully played by Q. Smith) have their own potential personal tragedies; the former simply tells us what she’s learned while the latter must wait and wait and wait. As Hannah relates her biggest fears, Astrid Van Wieren’s Beulah shows that she’s really listening and caring.
Rodney Hicks portrays an African-American who worries how he’ll be perceived in a town where blacks are seldom-if-ever seen. Gay lovers (nicely portrayed by Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) have similar worries. At least Diane and Nick (Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall, both quite appealing) may well find romance.
The backstory of each character is on the slight side with one notable exception: the female captain tells us what’s on her mind thanks to the only one of 15 songs that’s a solo. Frankly, calling the other 14 “songs” may be stretching the definition (aside from a rousing Canadian-country opening number). There’s plenty of music that rarely stops, but most of the time a cast member sings a single observation followed by another who does the same, followed by another still. Rarely does a performer sing two lines in a row.
As a result, after the opening number at Saturday’s matinee, nearly an hour passed before a clean moment arrived when the audience felt free to applaud. The “songs” are better described as musical quips — good and listenable ones with God-is-in-the-detail-level lyrics. Frank Loesser described his 41-song THE MOST HAPPY FELLA as “a musical with a lotta music.” COME FROM AWAY is “a play with a lotta music” woven through it.
At show’s end, each performer must be exhausted – and twice as tired at the end of Wednesday and Saturday evenings – unless performing this show is so exhilarating that adrenalin flows freely through each body.
Christopher Ashley has directed it at a furious pace, faster than a .220 Swift speeding bullet, all to remind us of the hurly-burly nature of this hell week. It’s a masterpiece of staging in its precision blocking and it has attitude. Here’s a musical that demands an audience come to it and keep up with it. Only the most soulless theatergoers won’t rise to the challenge.
For a show that’s set in motion by one of America’s greatest tragedies, COME FROM AWAY has an amazing amount of humor. More than once did some audience members give the ultimate compliment after hearing a funny line: not only did they laugh uproariously, but they punctuated their response with sharp handclaps of “That was a good one!”
In the last part of the 20th century, we had “The British Invasion,” as London exported several mega-hits to our shores. Perhaps COME FROM AWAY will start “The Canadian Invasion,” which we’d welcome if all their shows were as good as this one. Is COME FROM AWAY “the feel-good musical” of 2017? You could put it that way, but here’s hoping that it will become known as the feel-GREAT musical that runs into 2018 and well beyond.