When the air space above New York closed on 9/11, nearly 7000 passengers were diverted to Newfoundland off the coast of eastern Canada. That airport had retained several large runways dating from a time when flights between the United States and Europe had to stop and refuel. Suddenly inhabitants of this 43,000 square foot island had to prepare to double their population for an unknown duration.
A new musical, Come From Away, follows some of their stories, as weary and frightened travelers engage with small town residents. There aren’t many unexpected plot twists here. But following their emotional detour is a generally delightful experience. Frankly in our current often divisive climate, it feels good to be reminded that even at the darkest moments strangers can find many ways to come together. Perhaps with this in mind, the production has added a page to their website where audience members can dig deeper into the history that inspired such an unlikely Broadway offering. (I recommend at the very least pulling up the photo of the air strip with 38 jumbo jets parked nose to tail.)
This is very much an ensemble piece. Each actor portrays multiple characters, usually switching roles with the addition of a hat or jacket and a change of accent. (Special acknowledgement goes to dialect coach Joel Goldes for helping the actors capture the special Newfoundlander cadence and to costume designer Toni-Leslie James for supplying the perfect wardrobe pieces.) The entire cast is strong and it is to their credit that within a short period we feel for each and every one. Past Obie winner Joel Hatch represents two mayors who pitch in with different styles and equal verve. Jenn Colella takes on a pioneering airline pilot and an oft-smitten assistant principal with the same amount of compassion and insight. It falls to Q. Smith as Hannah to carry the weight of the desperate mother who doesn’t know the whereabouts of her firefighter son. One by one the voices of many cultures are heard.
Christopher Ashley’s staging is remarkably clever, using mostly lights and a few chairs to convey many locations from inside a plane to inside a schoolhouse. Lovers of big musical numbers may be disappointed, however. The work by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is more of the storytelling-set-to-tunes variety. Dance Captain Josh Breckenridge has provided some movement, but nothing that could be called a dance number. Lyrics do their job in moving the plot forward, but aren’t particularly clever or catchy. Songs are nicely executed and have wonderful echoes of the Irish ancestry shared by the majority of Newfoundlanders, but there isn’t a great deal of variation. In fact, it wasn’t until the post-bow jam session that I was able to fully appreciate the band’s talent.
Judging from the prolonged standing ovation, I’m not the only one who thinks Come From Away is a welcome addition to lineup for this season. The show is recommended for ages 10 and over and for a change I can say that entire age range will be engaged by what they see and hear. Running time is a compelling 100 minutes. Tickets for the run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater are available for the remainder of 2017 at http://comefromaway.com.