Word from away about “Come From Away” has seemed almost too good to be true. Reports from productions at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Seattle Rep, Washington, D.C., Toronto and, oh yes, Gander, Newfoundland, have practically beamed with grateful incredulity.
Could it be? Had the theater finally found a way to sing and dance with dignity regarding 9/11, a catastrophe that has, thus far, been the third rail of theatergoers’ emotions?
Well, “Come From Away” may not be Broadway’s first feel-good musical about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but it is a feel-pretty-nice musical. Think of the simple 100-minute show as psychological training wheels, perhaps a way to ease us into the unbearable stories our playwrights might someday ask us to confront.
About Gander. It seems that 38 planes from all over were diverted to this isolated tip of Canada when the U.S. airspace was closed. That meant almost 7,000 international passengers who were grumpy before they knew enough to be scared. The townspeople — implausibly pleasant, salt-of-the-rocky coast folk — get right down to finding food and lodging, phones and plenty of drink and care for the onboard animals.
Thus, the Gander people have a real untold story to tell, which Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a married Canadian writing team, lay out with bits of overlapping narratives and folksy, stomping songs — mostly group unisons and patter. An onstage band plays from either side of the stage, designed by Beowulf Boritt with tall trees and a woodsy back wall.
Director Christopher Ashley, artistic director of La Jolla, gets solid, likable performances from 12 actors, who play both the townsfolk and what they begin to call the plane people.
We find out more about some than others. Jenn Colella applies her silvery voice to the journey of a woman pilot, though she talks so much about American Airlines that I looked in vain for a program credit. The locals disarmingly embracing the gay guys and the wary New York black fellow and the Muslim, while a romance develops between the Texas woman and the man from England. The stranded have different accents, but conveniently, everyone speaks English.
And everyone, of course, is shocked by what’s happening on the news. Over five days, however, they get distracted into what feels just a bit too much like hootenanny camp. When they finally fly home, they sing that “something’s missing.” Most people in New York that day can tell them what’s missing from their show. The real thing.