Any doubts that a musical about 9/11 could work were quelled long ago by “Come From Away,” the disarming tale of how the citizens of a small town in Newfoundland, Canada, rose to the occasion when 38 commercial planes were diverted there following the terrorist attacks.
A hit on Broadway, where it will close this fall after a five-plus-year run, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s musical charmed some of its earliest audiences here with a 2015 Seattle Repertory Theatre production, coproduced with San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse. And when the national tour began in 2018, the 5th Avenue Theatre, which hosted a 2014 workshop of the show, was one of the first stops.
Now, hundreds of performances and a pandemic later, the “Come From Away” national tour is back at the 5th, running through Aug. 7. This staging will look quite similar to anyone who saw the 2018 stop, as two-thirds of the 12-person ensemble cast are still performing.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, “Come From Away” remains an invigorating, heartening portrait of the resilience of a community’s response to crisis, buoyed by an earned sentimentality and tempered with enough melancholy to honor the tragic origins of the story.
It’s just another Tuesday in Gander, Newfoundland, when the gossip at Tim Hortons is interrupted by the news that airliners have been used in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. airspace is closed and dozens of flights have had their final destination changed to Gander. Once a popular refueling location for transcontinental flights, the airport has the capacity to accommodate the planes, but the tiny town is about to have its population nearly doubled by the close to 7,000 passengers and crew members onboard.
Sankoff and Hein’s score, filled with folksy Celtic-influenced tunes, is plenty infectious, but the show’s most impressive feat is the way it expertly deploys its ensemble, each member playing both Gander citizens and the shellshocked “plane people” who find themselves as their unexpected guests. The cast works equally well as a unit and its component parts, efficiently transforming from passengers crammed on a plane to townspeople scrambling to amass food and supplies, all the while drawing out distinct characters.
Based on interviews Sankoff and Hein conducted with real-life participants, these characters include a host of impossibly wholesome Gander residents, including teacher Beulah (Julie Johnson), who arranges shelter for the visitors in the school, and SPCA worker Bonnie (Kristen Peace), who breaks the rules to care for the animals stuck in the planes’ cargo holds.
Many of the visitors are initially taken aback by their hosts’ selfless generosity, including Bob (James Earl Jones II), a Black man wary of the nearly all-white population. But he, along with most of the others, finds himself won over — if the kindness won’t do it, there’s always the Irish whiskey.
“Come From Away” is propelled by a mood of perpetual uplift, saved from bloating into something distastefully maudlin by real acknowledgment of the devastation that precipitated this moment of human triumph. Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) waits anxiously by the phone for word from her firefighter son who hasn’t been seen since the attacks, while Beverley (Marika Aubrey), an American Airlines pilot, reels from the shattering of her sacred space.
And the show does acknowledge the instantly simmering, real-life Islamophobia that was soon to erupt with the character of Ali (Nick Duckart), a chef of Egyptian origin who faces unfounded suspicion that escalates into personal violation. This is resolved a bit too neatly, and it, along with a gauzy George W. Bush sound bite, are perhaps unintended reminders of how the heartwarming Gander story is very much an outlier when it came to responses to 9/11.
Still, “Come From Away” is just as irresistible as it was all those years ago at the Rep. And as we sit here pandemic-weary, somewhere on the continuum of another national crisis, the small reminder of our capacity for magnanimity is nothing to dismiss.