June 4, 2022 | By Bruce R. Feldman
Come From Away, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, May 31 – June 12, 2022
In Brief: An inspirational account of everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances, the lengths they go to meet the challenges, and the lessons learned, this joyful musical returns to Los Angeles in a terrific production that will make you feel glad to be alive.
I can recall only one other Broadway musical about small town Canadian life, The Happy Time, a charming, moderately successful but now forgotten 1968 Kander and Ebb vehicle for Robert Goulet. It was a period piece, set in the 1920s, about a worldly photographer who returns to his family and provincial hometown, the fictional St. Pierre.
Flash forward to the very real Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001, when the invigorating musical Come From Away takes place. This time the show’s story is true. On that day, 38 commercial airliners were summarily ordered to land there as America closed its airspace because jets had crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
Nine thousand weary passengers suddenly were stranded in, as one of the spirited production numbers describes, “the middle of nowhere.” The town’s 7,000 residents swung into action. They opened their homes, schools, and churches to house the outsiders, scrounged around for provisions to feed them, and struggled to comfort and assuage the fears of strangers of every religious and ethnic background, some of whom spoke no English, all of whom were exhausted, confused, and at least a little aggravated.
How they went about that – their struggles, sacrifices, and the personal emotional journeys of both locals and passengers – is the absorbing subject of Come From Away.
While some 20 years have passed since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, for those old enough to remember – and that’s most frequent theatregoers – the nearly 3,000 deaths and collapse of the two towers resonate as powerfully today as if they had happened just yesterday. The profound sorrow and anxiety we still feel makes play’s message that much more affecting.
A wonderful, uplifting, and thoroughly pleasurable production
The events of that horrific day also impacted the lives of those living far from New York City. With a robust score, no-nonsense lyrics, and lots of smartly staged movement throughout, the creators artfully intertwine multiple stories of passengers and hosts.
There’s the bond that forms between Hannah – she can’t reach her son who is a firefighter in New York – and Beulah – her son is a firefighter in Gander. Englishman Nick and Texan Diane provide emotional support for each other and end up falling in love. And there are the Muslim and African passengers who arouse the suspicions and veiled prejudices of locals and authorities alike.
Their stories, and others, are voiced without judgment and with admirable sensitivity and often self-deprecating humor in a layered text that is more of an operatic libretto than the book of a Broadway musical, which is to say that there’s more singing than talking. None of this takes away from the drama of the story. In fact, the intensity of the music and lyrics, by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Kelly Devine’s dynamic, intricate musical staging, and Christopher Ashley’s sure directorial hand and well modulated pacing make the stories that much more impactful, as well as tremendously entertaining.
One musical number, Prayer, is especially moving, as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus chant in multi-part harmonies and different languages.
The ensemble cast is sensational. Actors play multiple roles. They’re all Broadway, regional theatre, and national tour professionals. No big-name stars here, and none needed. These aces may not be famous, but they can deliver and know how to bring down the house at several moments during the tidy 100-minute with no intermission presentation.
Many days it feels as if it’s a sad world we live in. But it can also be one filled with hope and humanity. For a moment we can cherish that feeling and try to move forward, thanks to the loving citizens of Gander and the gifted creators, actors, and musicians who bring their stories to life in this wonderful, uplifting, and thoroughly pleasurable production.
"Come From Away," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213-628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org