By Meredith Ganzman
The rousing opening number of the new Broadway musical Come From Away bids us “Welcome to the Rock,” specifically, to Newfoundland, Canada, an island off the eastern coast of North America. With book, music, and lyrics by Canadian husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come from Away relates a tale of 9/11 that took place behind the scenes and largely out of the spotlight, when 7,000 people from more than 100 countries found themselves stranded in the small Newfoundland town of Gander.
Here’s what happened that day: Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States closed its airspace, forcing hundreds of planes to be diverted from their planned destinations. Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport took in 38 transatlantic planes, nearly doubling the remote town’s population of 10,000. This is the story of Come From Away–how the travelers and the people of a remote, tiny town were affected by one the greatest tragedies of our time.
The versatile cast of 12, alongside an eight-piece, onstage band, sings mostly catchy, Celtic folk rock music and plays more than 40 characters, a mix of locals and “come from aways” (people not born on Newfoundland). The characters are based on real people or composites of them.
There’s Janice (Kendra Kassebaum), a television reporter new to the area and Claude Elliott (Geno Carr), a local mayor. Then there’s the “plane people,” couple Kevin T. (Chad Kimball) and Kevin J. (Caesar Samayoa), California environmentalists, and Hannah (Q. Smith) the mother of a New York firefighter lost in the attacks.
The cast skillfully transfers in and out of characters and even accents. A particular standout is Jenn Colella, who plays Beverley Bass, the pilot of one of the diverted planes. Bass was the first female pilot to achieve the rank of captain for American Airlines and Colella does a winning job relating her story in the show’s song “Me and the Sky.”
Yes, Come from Away is heartwarming. One cannot help be moved and inspired by seeing the citizens of a tiny island band together and selflessly open their doors to help thousands of strangers. And yet something is missing. Although it is based on true, unique stories from 9/11, the musical seems to glaze over the actual tragedy of the events. Two of the “come from aways” are indeed New Yorkers, but the story tries to divert attention from the United States’ national grief to instead focus on the lighter side of diverse people uniting during extreme darkness. This just seems unrealistic.
The musical concludes with Gander’s Mayor Elliott saying, “Tonight, we honor what was lost. But we also commemorate what we found!” A nice sentiment, but Come from Away would be a more successful show if it dug a little deeper for context and meaning.
Come From Away is playing now at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.