“Come From Away” celebrates acts of kindness, and indeed the potential we all have (but don’t always exercise) for active compassion in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy.
As the cast members took their bows on the official opening night of “Come From Away” at the 5th Avenue Theatre, a group of audience members streamed excitedly up the aisles to join them on stage.
They were greeted with more cheers, as the crowd quickly realized that these were actual residents of the remote burg of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed into their town and their homes thousands of unexpected foreign travelers in 2001. The visitors were passengers and personnel on flights diverted to Canada following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. And if calling their hosts everyday heroes sounds a bit hackneyed, and the musical about them is at times openly sentimental, it’s the truth.
“Come From Away” celebrates acts of kindness, and indeed the potential we all have (but don’t always exercise) for active compassion in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy. Whether you saw the show or not at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015, en route to its successful and ongoing Broadway run, this openhearted production (which has changed little since its first stand here) has returned in an exhilarating national touring production at the 5th Ave.
Starting with “Welcome to The Rock,” a Celtic hoedown of an opening number about the rocky island Gander is perched on, “Come From Away” tells its hopeful story briskly (no intermission) but meaningfully, and from many perspectives. The dialogue and score by the married team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff whisk you right along, buoyed by Christopher Ashley’s limber, Tony Award-honored direction on a simple set of tall trees and a few sticks of furniture.
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The focus is on the dozen cast members alternating as Ganderites and “come from aways” (their visitors). They convey a real-life story that unfolds from the morning of the terrorist airplane attacks on the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people, through the five days that Gander and nearby towns suddenly absorbed more than 6,600 redirected passengers and airline crew members. That’s a lot of meals, beverages, diapers and goodwill to round up in a hurry.
Drawn from interviews Hein and Sankoff conducted at the 10th reunion of the Ganderites and some of their 9/11 guests, the show’s book and score give equal voice to the hometown Canadians hanging at their favorite Tim Hortons coffee shop, and a cross-section of travelers — gay and straight, black and white, Jewish and Christian and Muslim. There’s much humor here, some poignancy, and an occasional (and forgivable) dip into romanticizing the goodness of close-knit rural communities.
Sure, some of the Ganderites seem too selfless to be true: the take-charge and generous Beulah (Julie Johnson); the hearty, can-do Gander mayor Claude (Kevin Carolan); the animal-lover Bonnie (Megan McGinnis), who goes to great lengths to rescue all the pets from the flights, including a rare (and pregnant) monkey.
But in context, they respond how most caring people would, or should respond to others in a time of crisis — as many have lately, in the wake of destructive tropical storms in Florida and elsewhere.
The Granderites’ particular joie de vivre, captured also in the show’s folksy musical score, is especially ingratiating — as they feed and clothe, console and entertain their frazzled visitors with sympathy, corny jokes, a whiskey-fueled party and the quaint Gander custom of kissing a codfish.
“Come From Away” also relates the frustrations and fears of the unintended visitors. In the aching ballad “I Am Here,” American passenger Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) worries about the fate of her New York firefighter son. While one urbanite (Andrew Samonsky) warms to Gander, his cynical boyfriend (Nick Duckart) resents being stuck in a backwater. And the Muslim passenger Ali (also Duckart) is on the receiving end of anti-Arab bigotry that flared after 9/11.
But there is plenty of bonding, too, as the English businessman Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) and the Texas single-mother Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) get cozy, and an anxious African-American man (James Earl Jones II) realizes he can breathe easy among these white Canadians. And in a heartening choral number, a traditional Hebrew prayer for peace entwines with a Christian psalm and acts of Muslim devotion.
The cohesive touring ensemble (rounded out by Harter Clingman, Emily Walton and Becky Gulsvig as dauntless airline pilot Beverley Bass) fires on all jets, as does an onstage band that works in the Celtic sounds of tin whistle, accordion, hand drum and fiddle.
By the end of “Come From Away,” you may feel like you’ve also visited and been embraced by Gander. In a time of deepening geopolitical divisions and scary animosities, the musical has become something of a quiet phenom on Broadway, in Toronto and abroad. And at every major opening, a Gander contingent is on hand, now as ambassadors welcoming the world to “The Rock.”
“Come From Away,” book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Through Nov. 4; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $29; 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org