While getting a ticket to the hot show on Broadway—Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, The Producers—is exciting, it is equally exciting to be surprised by a funny, charming and well-written show like Come From Away that seems to have come from nowhere—well, in this case, Newfoundland, by way of Toronto, with layovers in La Jolla, California; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle.
Set to a largely upbeat Irish folk-rock score, Come From Away tells the story of what happened when 38 planes with about 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, a town of about 9,000 people, after U.S. airspace was closed following the September 11 attacks.
When someone told me I should see this “uplifting 9/11 musical,” I was very skeptical and more than a little worried. The cynical New Yorker in me had trouble imagining how—or even if—this could be done. My worries probably would have been somewhat assuaged had I known the writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein had written something called My Mother’s Jewish Lesbian Wiccan Wedding, which was, like Come From Away, based on a true story. But I didn’t know that, and all the ways this project could go wrong flashed through my head: a bad Frank Capra imitation with too much sentiment, too much heroism, too much altruism.
I was happily mistaken. All those elements are present but in well-measured proportions: A Muslim man (Caesar Samayoa) is treated badly, until it is revealed that he is a chef at a world-class restaurant. And an African-American woman (Q. Smith) tries desperately to get news about her New York City firefighter son.
Also present, in large doses, however, is humor. The attacks of September 11 evoke many feelings: fear, courage, sadness; humor does not often make the list. Here, however, it is handled very smartly: When a huge barbecue is planned for the visitors, an African-American man from New York City (Rodney Hicks) is told to go take grills from the townspeople’s backyards. He has visions of being shot by the police. Hicks gets perhaps the biggest laugh of the show with a raised eyebrow and half-stifled gasp. And probably in no other play has the decision about whether to kiss a fish been a life-changing event.
The “come from aways,” as the Newfoundlanders refer to all nonnatives, may not have been refugees, but they were stranded. The natives organize to collect food, clothing, toiletries and bedding supplies for the passengers. Every public space is made available, and some natives even invite passengers into their homes. The show’s celebration of diversity and community is perhaps even more timely today, when different social and political groups can’t come together, than in the days after the events that inspired this show.
Each of the 12 actors plays at least one major role and at least a dozen minor ones. In the ease with which actors change characters and accents, Come From Away is reminiscent of such plays as The 39 Steps and Around the World in 80 Days, but those were played as farce.
Most big Broadway shows are star-driven, but Come From Away is an ensemble piece and one of the best in years. In one act, at one hour and 40 minutes, Come From Away moves at a brisk, entertaining pace and easily passes the wristwatch test: I never once checked the time. But it passes a bigger test: Come From Away accomplishes what all the best musicals do: It takes you to a place where you didn’t know you wanted to go, and makes you not want to leave.
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