Be warned: There most certainly will be hugging among strangers at Playhouse Square. And random acts of kindness will likely break out as well.
The reason is “Come From Away,” the touring 2017 Tony Award-winning musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. It is a one-act celebration of the selfless generosity, self-deprecating humor and heroic hospitality displayed by the ordinary citizens of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001, when they saw their small town’s population double overnight as 38 planes with 6,579 passengers were forced to land and stay grounded for five days when the U.S.’s air traffic was restricted due to terrorist attack.
The musical, which unfolds with great pace and greater sense of purpose under Christopher Ashley’s direction, offers a running oral history of those days as seen through the eyes of a dozen locals and a dozen visitors the locals affectionately refer to as “plane people.” Inspired by real people, these characters are portrayed by the same 12 versatile cast members (Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan McGinnis, Andrew Samonsky, Danielle K. Thomas, and Emily Walton) who shift from one to the other and back again with little more than a change of hat or coat and some terrific acting.
Every cast member brings high energy, a powerful voice and an air of authenticity to this production – even after nine months on the road – and delivers this musical as if it was a true labor of love.
The assorted snapshot scenarios that make up this show are filled with poignant drama, including a mother desperately attempting to get word about her first-responder son, and a young rabbi passenger who is approached by a local man who emigrated from Poland as a child during WWII and told no one – not even his wife – that he was Jewish. There are many light moments as well, such as when the plane people are sworn in as “official Ganderites” by the amiable Mayor after they kiss a cod and down some local rotgut.
The characters and their stories have been cleverly compiled so that at least one will resonate with every audience member’s 9/11 memory, which effectively breaks down defenses and manages to hit home. So there will be weeping along with the hugging among strangers.
Nearly every song in “Come From Away” is an ensemble number that employs Celtic folk and gentle rock music with foot-stomping rhythms, which not only reinforce the communal nature of this story but add powerful volume and rich harmony to the storytelling. The few songs that feature a solo singer – the vocally gifted Gulsvig telling the story of the first female American Airline pilot in “Me and the Sky” and the soulful Thomas as the mother of a ground zero first-responder in “I Am Here” – are sobering affairs that beautifully highlight a single and simple story.
The performers are accompanied by a wonderful eight-piece band (Cynthia Kortman Westphal, Isaac Alderson, Kiana June Weber, Adam Stoler, Matt Wong, Max Calkin, Steve Halloway and Ben Morrow). They can be found lurking on stage behind the large trees that border the rustic performance space that serves as every location in Gander, designed by Beowulf Boritt, using nothing but chairs and Howell Binkley’s lighting.
“Come From Away” is a strikingly small show filled with subtle artistry, delicate fluidity and amazing grace, unlike most of the film-to-stage behemoths (“Anastasia,” “Frozen” and “Mean Girls”) that await next year’s Key Bank Broadway Series subscribers. For theatergoers looking for an alternative to the low risk/high reward productions that have taken over much of Broadway and the national touring circuit, “Come From Away” whispers while so many other productions shout.