When the touring production of “Come From Away” came through town in the summer of 2019, I called it “one of the wittiest and most warm-hearted shows” I'd seen that year.
Now that it's back for an all-too-brief run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, I have to add that it is more essential viewing than ever in this pandemic-weary and war-threatened time.
The opening-night audience seemed to think so, too. It erupted into applause before the show even started, and everyone rose to their feet for a long standing ovation after the finale. Then the terrific onstage band played an additional Gaelic-inflected tune before anyone would leave the theater.
What makes “Come From Away” special boils down to great storytelling and a hopeful message about human kindness. Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, have managed to turn an horrific event into a heart-healing theatrical experience that demonstrates how disaster can bring out the best in people.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. airspace was closed and 38 international flights were diverted to the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, stranding close to 7,000 travelers and airline crew (plus 19 animals) there and virtually doubling the population. Though the airport had been important as a refueling stop before the advent of jet planes, the townspeople were ill-equipped to handle the influx of tired, scared people who had no idea what was going on.
Yet instead of despairing, they rose to the occasion, housing, feeding, clothing and comforting the visitors for several days before the planes could fly again. Basing their account on interviews done during the tenth-anniversary reunion of the Newfies and passengers, Sankoff and Hein capture the fears, anxieties and hopes of both groups while simultaneously singling out some individual stories.
Remarkably, they do this mainly in a dozen-or-so songs for the whole company, interspersed with a few solos and duets, as well as a smattering of dialogue. The songs recount what happens in chronological order from an introduction to Gander in “Welcome to the Rock” to the sense that “Something's Missing” after the crisis is over. In between are numbers about practical considerations such as “Blankets and Bedding,” revelations of confusion, anger and uncertainty like “28 Hours/Wherever We Are,” odes to emerging relationships such as “Stop the World” and a beautiful “Prayer” connecting four faiths.
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, a dozen terrific actors play all the characters, switching among them with ease and a few simple costume changes (costumes by Toni-Leslie James). Among the Newfies are the mayor, Claude (Kevin Carolan); SPCA worker Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh), who takes it upon herself to care for the dogs, cats and two bonobos in the cargo hold, and Beulah (Julie Johnson), a teacher and all-around organizer who befriends Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), a traveler who is desperately trying to reach her firefighter son in New York on the phone.
Other passengers range from Texan Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Brit Nick (Chamblee Ferguson), whose romance buds and blossoms in the course of the evening, to the two Kevins (Jeremy Woodard, Nick Duckart), whose gay relationship frays during the ordeal. Duckart also plays Ali, a Muslim subjected to humiliations, whose offers to help in the kitchen are rebuffed by Beulah until he says he's a chef for world-class hotels. Then there's street-savvy Bob (Court Theatre regular James Earl Jones II), who is so wary he doesn't know where to leave his wallet, and Beverley (Marika Aubrey), who became American Airlines' first female flight captain in 1986 and pays tribute to her love of flying in “Me and the Sky.”
While some of these people, such as Beverley (last name: Bass), are real individuals, others are composites. If, in general, they reinforce the stereotype that Canadians are kinder, gentler people, and the whole show comes across as more fantasy than reality, there's certainly more than a germ of truth or there wouldn't have been a reunion.
Perhaps more than anything, Sankoff and Hein know how to use humor even — or especially — in unlikely and uncomfortable situations. Sometimes they poke fun at the Newfies, for example, in explicating a Newfoundlander initiation ritual that involves yellow rain hats and kissing a cod. Elsewhere, it diffuses difficulties, as when a group of doctors step up (in song and dance) to clean the toilets. One of the funniest incidents occurs when the Mayor instructs Bob to gather the barbecue grills from all the backyards and bring them to the community center and he, afraid of being shot for stealing, finds a totally unexpected welcome instead.
“Come From Away” unfolds in about 100 minutes on Beowulf Boritt's simple set with mismatched chairs and a couple of tables on a turntable amid a stand of tree trunks. Howell Binkley's lighting marks the change of locations and passage of time. In truth, though, a bare stage would do almost as well. What really matters is the surpassing script, the splendid ensemble, the songs and the super band. Don't miss it!