It’s undoubtedly a remarkable story. In the immediate wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the entire United States airspace was shut down. Almost 7,000 passengers on 38 planes were diverted to the remote town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada. Locals spent the following week hosting the “come from aways” and something of an impromptu international community popped up, before normalcy returned a few days later.
But does it translate into a compelling musical? The answer is an unqualified yes, with Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein (who wrote the show’s book, music and lyrics) transforming this material into a highly emotional, constantly engaging and pointedly relevant production. And although this is very much a feelgood show, they don’t entirely paper over the darker cracks of the story either.
The Australian premiere run’s 12-member ensemble all excel at embodying multiple roles, a mixture of Gander locals and their unexpected visitors. Among the former: the mayor, a police officer, a teacher, the manager of an animal shelter and a TV journalist. Among the latter: a reserved British frequent flyer, a Muslim chef and two gay men named Kevin.
Some of the characters are based on real people, others are composites. With so many quick character changes, Toni-Leslie James’ simple, clever costume design becomes especially important. Small signifiers like a religious cross, a cap, a pair of glasses do a lot of grounding work.
The show’s numbers combine sung refrains with a more conversational style, as if these characters are telling their stories to the audience. Events move at a cracking pace, with performers rarely stopping for applause or to take a breath.
Events move at a cracking pace, with performers rarely stopping for applause or to take a breath.
Sankoff and Hein admirably include some of the rougher edges of the story, including the spectrum of Islamophobia faced by the chef Ali, and the fracturing relationship between the two Kevins. Then there’s the agony faced by Hannah, who goes from spending over 24 hours on a grounded aeroplane, to discovering that her son, a New York City firefighter, is missing.
The music is appropriately and distinctively influenced by Celtic-styled Newfoundland music and elements of world music. The energetic band remain on-stage throughout, as do the performers.
Beowulf Boritt’s cleverly designed set is all wood and tree trunks, including a couple that have pointedly splintered. A wall of slats enables light and colour from the screen behind to filter through, bathing the stage in a mellow blue during the reflective ‘Prayer’.
Inevitably, the horrors of September 11 loom over the events on stage, filtering through at moments including Come From Away’s highlight, a number called ‘Me and the Sky’, in which a pilot recounts her journey to becoming the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft.
“Suddenly I’m wondering how my parents would feel, seeing me teaching men to be pilots,” Beverley reflects of her career success. But then news of 9/11 filters through. “And the one thing I loved more than anything was used as the bomb.”
Such reminders help drive the emotional impact of the closing number. “You are here at the start of a moment, at the edge of the world,” the finale goes, “here on the edge of the Atlantic, on an island in between there and here.”
It’s a rousing moment, and it gestures to the central paradox for these characters, for this musical: that it took a horrific event thousands of kilometres away to create it. I don’t know how you would even begin to process that, and neither does this show.
But in its textured celebration of the power of community, in its focus on a bunch of people creating something admirable from events thrust upon them, it is profoundly moving. Indeed, it is hard to overstate Come From Away’s emotional impact.
Come From Away is playing at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.
Feature pic: Jeff Busby