Come From Away, a Broadway in Chicago presentation directed by Christopher Ashley now in its Chicago premiere at Cadillac Palace Theatre, is a musical that’s perfectly suited for this period in American history.
This is true in both an aesthetic and a historical sense. The play, which was first workshopped in 2012 and is based on a true story, centers on the warm and caring response of the citizens of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada when 42 planes were unexpectedly forced to land there after U.S. and Canadian airspace was closed to air traffic in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Gander was not chosen at random; it hosts a major airport that serves as a transatlantic refueling stop, but in this case, the huge influx of passengers created an unprecedented challenge to feed, clothe, house and comfort what amounted to an entire small town of strangers that had suddenly swollen Gander’s modest population.
A little perspective: Gander has a permanent population of about 11,000, and the sudden appearance of 38 civilian planes’ (and four military aircraft) worth of passengers increased that population almost instantaneously by 6,600 hungry and frightened people who were stranded for nearly a week, many with medical issues, all with unanswered questions about the terrorist attacks, and all uncertain about what might come next.
Recall the first few days after 9/11 – in the face of Al Qaeda’s threats, nobody knew if and when it would be safe to fly again, or even if and when it would be safe to ever go to work in a skyscraper again. These fears have, fortunately, since been largely forgotten, but thanks to Come From Away and other accounts like it, the human stories of the heroes, helpers, survivors and victims of 9/11 – and, by extension, of other terrorist attacks worldwide – live on.
Come From Away focuses on a few of the true stories from that week, including most memorably a woman whose son, a New York City firefighter, is missing, and two passengers who bond and fall in love. Bonding, indeed, is the theme: The quirky denizens of Gander see to it that every person who has “come from away” to their small town feel as much at home as it is possible to feel when one has been exiled temporarily by the terrifying unknown. While there are passing references to “cod with cheese” and other makeshift comestibles, most of the welcoming bonhomie is represented by the Irish-inflected music that comfort and cheer the visitors at every turn. (Books, music and lyrics are by Irene Sakoff and David Hein, and music supervision is by Ian Eisendrath.)
The music itself is enjoyable, but Come From Away isn’t really much of a musical as such. Unlike the musicals of an earlier era – and very much like too many contemporary stage musicals – there is little in the way of glorious songcraft (think Oklahoma for an obvious example) that could stand on its own without the need for a narrative to provide context, and a bit too much of prosaic and overly literal “talk-singing” that functions primarily to convey the character’s stories. When the eight-person musical ensemble – featuring delightful instruments such as the Irish flute and Uilleann pipes — comes on stage for the finale, it’s a beautiful and stirring moment, but one can’t help but wish there had been a bit more of them and a good bit less of the baldly expository, albeit emotional, songs that had preceded them.
If the approach to the music is entirely contemporary, for better or for worse, so too is the musical’s message, in this case entirely for the good. While invidious comparisons to the situation on the U.S. southern border or to the bipartisan mess that created it would be far too glib, in a broader sense, the play’s message is a genuine, heartfelt, non-pandering reminder of the necessity and power of human kindness, and of the ability for human beings to connect across cultural divides. As down to earth, if you will, as this production is, it would be impossible, buoyed by the final strains of Celtic music and the audience’s thunderous applause, not to feel just a bit lifted in spirit, and hopeful about humanity, after leaving the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
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