A feel-good Canadian musical about 9/11 doesn’t sound like standard Broadway fare, but “Come From Away” impressed when it opened March 13 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Directed by Christopher Ashley, the musical centers on the true story of Gander, a town on Newfoundland Island that had to accommodate 6,579 travellers when planes were diverted there after the attacks.
Written by husband-and-wife duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein, moments of extreme corniness in both book and score undermine the show’s enormous potential for emotional currency. Nonetheless, their commemoration of an extraordinary moment of generosity is admirable and results in a show that, despite its flaws, is charming and heartfelt.
The score is strongest in songs influenced by the island’s Gaelic folk roots. The steady thump of a bodhran, a traditional Gaelic drum, introduces “Welcome to the Rock,” a regional anthem and guide to Gander. “Costume Party” follows the islanders as they wake up at 4 a.m. — breakfast time in Frankfurt — to feed the German passengers, eventually making enough food for 7,000 people. Later in the show, “Screech In” features a solo from a traditional Newfoundland instrument called an ugly stick, consisting of a mop tied to various household items. The odd instrument is joined by catchy chants from the ensemble, encouraging the foreigners to wear Sou’wester hats, drink screech and kiss a codfish.
While most of the songs are ensemble-based, two solo performances stand out. Jenn Colella showcased her resonant voice and effortless belt as Beverly, the first female captain to work for American Airlines. “Me and the Sky” is an inspiring account of the misogyny she endures, ending with the gutting line “the one thing I loved more than anything was used as a bomb.” Her secondary role is Annette, a quirky Newfoundlander whose fantasies about the men around her come to life on stage.
Another standout is Q. Smith as Hannah, the mother of a New York firefighter. “Here” details Hannah’s efforts to find out if her son is alive, and showcases the piercing quality of her beautiful soprano.
The most charming aspects of the musical are those that poke fun at how Canadian it is — the mayor introduces the town by saying, “Everything starts and ends at Tim Hortons.” Beowolf Boritt’s rustic set surrounds the ensemble with tall pines that have spotlights, paving the way for Howell Binkley’s stellar lighting design. Steinhardt alum and current Assistant Director of the Vocal Performance Program Ryan Driscoll did the music copy for the production.
While the timing of the show’s arrival may seem random, it provides a stark contrast to the current situation, where millions of refugees are homeless and denied basic rights. It doesn’t shy away from reality either — while the passengers from Europe and the United States find unquestioning support, Egyptian citizen Ali faces suspicion, detainment and intrusive full body searches every step of the way.
Cries of “Go back where you came from!” and “You don’t look American!” become even more chilling with the realization that such insults are not confined to the stage of a musical set 15 years ago — thousands endure them louder than ever today.
“Come From Away” is now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre at 236 W. 45th St.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 20 print edition.
Email Kamila Daurenova at [email protected]