The story of "Come From Away" is one of such life-affirming kindness and caring, it's a balm to behold on stage in these times of political ugliness.
The North American tour of this beautiful musical, which tells the true stories of 7,000 passengers grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, played to a jubilant standing ovation Wednesday night at the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square.
Created by Canadian husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff, this gem of a show is bound to move all but the most hard-hearted to tears. The hit musical, which opened on Broadway in 2017 and now has five companies running throughout the world, chronicles the quirky, generous-hearted people of Gander as the town of 10,000 mobilizes to take in thousands of frightened, confused passengers after the United States closed its airspace.
Hein and Sankoff visited Gander on the 10th anniversary of the attacks to gather stories of the five days that the outsiders — or ''come from aways" — spent in this tiny community. The couple have created a deeply touching, dramatic, funny work that celebrates the inherent goodness in people. From the moment the show opens with the dramatic folk song "Welcome to the Rock,'' we are swept up in this tiny island culture where everybody knows everybody.
We learn how the citizens of Gander started their day before hearing on the radio or TV of the attacks in the U.S. A total of 38 planes were diverted to their airport, full of passengers who at first had no idea where they were or why.
In the meantime, the townspeople, led by Julie Johnson as the warm and wonderful Beulah, mobilized with blankets, bedding, personal care items, clothing and more.
It's the rich details in Sankoff and Hein's libretto, all from personal interviews, that make this show so rewarding to watch. The actors enable us to see the fear that the "plane people" from around the world feel as they arrive by bus at a Salvation Army camp, see scores of volunteers in the nonprofit organization's uniform and mistake them for the military.
Through an amazingly tight ensemble of 12, we see how fear and distrust in this time of crisis grows into enduring friendships over five days. Encapsulating that are actors James Earl Jones II and Danielle Thomas as frightened passengers from Africa who don't speak English. One of the men from Gander points them to a reassuring passage in their Bible, and in this way they discover a common language.
"Come From Away" runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, which keeps the propulsive drama of this story going. The ensemble members, who expertly double as both the Gander residents and the passengers from numerous countries, quickly and seemingly effortlessly switch from one character to the next with the help of accents and costumes accessories.
This is a fast-paced, smart and highly nimble show. The marvelous staging by director Christopher Ashley is deceptively simple, with chairs gathered around in a Tim Horton's quickly reconfigured to create passenger rows on a plane or a bus as the storytelling shifts.
Becky Gulsvig cuts a strong character as pioneering female pilot Beverley, who won't leave her hotel phone as she waits for word that her plane can again take off. Her song "Me and the Sky" illuminates her strong and determined character.
Megan McGinnis also creates a sympathetic character as Bonnie, the SPCA worker in Gander who cares for the 19 animals (including a chimp!) in the planes' holds. Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson are also lovely as Diane and Nick, strangers who find love in this chaotic time.
"Come From Away" is full of wonderful nuggets of humor, including Kevin Carolan's folksy mayor Claude, who inducts several "come from aways" as honorary Newfoundlanders through a wacky screech-in ceremony. Jones also has a humorous scene where his African American character is asked by a neighboring town's mayor to take the residents' grills from their yards for a big barbecue event.
The show's folk music is wonderful, too, led by a top-notch onstage band of eight whose members at times become part of the action. Their refreshing sound comes from diverse instruments, including accordion, harmonium, Irish flute, whistles, mandolin and bodhran. Wednesday's audience couldn't get enough of them: These musicians also received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj