On paper, it feels a bit wrong to call a musical about September 11th, 2001 “uplifting.” It is easy to wonder how that could possibly be true…until seeing Come From Away, a true marvel of a show that manages to take a large story everyone knows about one of the most devastating days in modern times and find inside of it a much smaller story few people know that shines a light on the very best aspects of humanity. The award-winning musical, which opened on Broadway in early 2017 and continues to play to sold-out New York crowds, is now on tour and opened Wednesday at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. From start to finish, it is a sensational ensemble piece that combines innovative theatrical storytelling with raw emotion, and serves as a needed and timely reminder of all the good that exists in the world.
Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away tells the true story of what happened in Gander, a small town in Newfoundland with a population of around 10,000 people, on September 11th. When US airspace is closed following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, 38 planes coming from and headed to a wide variety of international destinations are unexpectedly diverted to land in Gander. In a matter of hours, the population practically doubles, and the townspeople spring to action, pooling their energy and resources to house, clothe, and feed nearly 7,000 panicked and confused passengers. At first, many of the travelers, exhausted from spending over a day on board the planes and overwhelmed by the news of the attacks, are skeptical of the friendly Canadians who are more than willing to invite strangers into their own homes for a hot shower. But by the end of what turns out to be a five day ordeal, both the passengers and the townspeople are forever changed, and many of them form bonds that end up lasting a lifetime.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, Come From Away is a true ensemble effort. Twelve cast members all take on multiple roles, often switching seamlessly between accents and characters, rarely leaving the stage. With minimal set design and the help of an onstage band, they create a homey Tim Horton’s, a plane full of drunk and confused passengers, a high school turned shelter, and a bustling pub with an authenticity that draws you in to every scene, perfectly conveying the unique and seemingly indescribable atmosphere of this specific place and time.
Sankoff and Hein wrote the show after visiting Gander on the tenth anniversary in 2011, when many of the “plane people” returned for a reunion. Many of the characters are based on real people, or composites of real people, and a few of them even took the stage for a curtain call on opening night in LA. Captain Beverley Bass (Becky Gulsvig) is an American Airlines captain and pilot of one of the planes diverted to Gander, a flight en route from Paris to Dallas. Her big song “Me and the Sky” is the finest the show has to offer, and it is impossible not to tear up as she outlines her path from childhood dream to breaking in to a male-dominated field, becoming the first female captain the airline ever had. As someone who has loved planes with a singular focus since she was a young girl, she feels personally shattered by the way the terrorists turned her favorite thing in the world into a weapon, and all she wants to do is get her passengers back in the air safely.
Another memorable story in the show directly inspired by real life is that of Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson), passengers on Captain Bass’s flight who meet and fall in love during their time in Gander. There are also connections made between the citizens of Gander and the visitors that go on to become lasting friendships. Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), one of the plane people, spends nearly every minute of the five days sitting by the phone, desperately waiting to hear from her son, a New York City firefighter who is unaccounted for. Beulah (Julie Johnson), a Gander resident who is instrumental in running one of the biggest shelters for the plane people at the local school, bonds with her because her own son is a firefighter, and provides support and the occasional distraction in the form of bad jokes. The stories told cover the entire spectrum of the bizarre and unprecedented situation. Bonnie (Megan McGinnis) is a worker at the local SPCA who becomes immediately concerned with the wellbeing of any animals on board the 38 planes, and fights legal and bureaucratic obstacles to ensure the 19 animals, including two rare Bonobos, are cared for.
Come From Away is that rare show that strikes a chord and reminds us of the power of theater to move and transform. There is just something so special about both the story and the raw, organic way in which it is told. The expertly crafted 90 minutes practically fly by, the emotional impact sneaking up on the viewer until you cannot remember precisely when you started to cry. This musical does not need flash; it does not need huge production numbers or sparkly costumes. It has something much more important—it genuinely captures the power of the human spirit in times of crisis, reminding us all that even when it may seem like the world is ending, somewhere in a tiny town no one has heard of people are performing selfless acts that will affect generations to come.
Come From Away runs at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through January 6th. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter a daily digital lottery for the chance to win tickets for just $25. After LA, the tour will stop in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Portland, and more. Come From Away is also currently playing in New York and Toronto, and tickets are on sale for upcoming productions in London, Melbourne, and Dublin. For more information, click here.