As you sit in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, watching an outstanding touring company unspool the tale of 7,000 airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, you may find yourself in a state of rapt contemplation. Americans have long cherished the right to disagree with each other and our government. That freedom may seem under attack these days, a corollary to the feeling of abject vulnerability back on that sorrowful day — my gosh, 18 years ago! — that a nation took numerous direct hits to its sense of security.
So the tender statement that “Come From Away” issues, about the kindness of people waiting at the end of a stark and fretful runway to offer a warm meal and friendship is received with a fresh sense of gratitude these days. Yes, there is something a little corny about the radiant goodness extolled in the musical, with book and score by the married team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein. But remember: This is Canada we’re singing about, a land that can sometimes seem the global headquarters of niceness.
Sankoff and Hein set about documenting in song the events in and around the town of Gander, whose airport, a once-bustling refueling stop for transatlantic flights, became a refuge for 38 jets after U.S. airspace was shut down on Sept. 11, 2001. In the resulting production, staged by director Christopher Ashley with a maestro’s flair, the dozen actors alternate as the newly mobilized townfolk and the “plane people.” The latter, from all over the world, find themselves, in the lyrics of one of the musical’s most melodically effective numbers, stuck “somewhere in the middle of nowhere.”
Nowhere can be a surprisingly moving place.
“Come From Away” turns us all into softies, as we follow the panoply of (true) subplots: the British passenger (Chamblee Ferguson) who falls in love with the woman from Texas (Christine Toy Johnson); the mother from New York (Danielle K. Thomas) with the firefighter son, missing in the smoldering debris of Ground Zero; the first-ever female American Airlines pilot (Marika Aubrey), grounded with her crew and passengers and itching to get her hands back on the throttle. On Beowulf Boritt’s rustic, tree-strewn turntable set, the actors seamlessly change personas andnarrate the myriad stories of a week in anguished limbo.
Though the emphasis is on coming together, the musical records at least one rip in the amiable fabric, concerning a Middle Eastern passenger (Nick Duckart) who comes under suspicion simply by ignorant association. But even the discord fomented by this cultural misunderstanding has a happy ending — it’s a small world, after all. One suspects that the points Sankoff and Hein sought to elucidate precluded any more comprehensive portrayal of the conflicts and tensions that must have arisen.
The songs, accompanied by an eight-person band conducted by Cameron Moncur, fill the Eisenhower with foot-stomping, Gaelic-inspired airs and pop ballads, all staged by Kelly Devine. “Welcome to the Rock,” the vibrant opening song, introduces the evening’s affable vibe and preference for ensemble numbers; the score comes across as a bonding exercise. In fact, “Screech In,” set in a Gander bar, seals the bond between the islanders and plane people with an initiation act set to music that requires the guests to show their Newfoundland worthiness by kissing a dead fish.
Rarely has liplock with a North Atlantic cod seemed such an expression of new love. After your own stirring encounter with a musical unafraid to wear its heart on its flannel-covered sleeve, you’ll no doubt be willing to kiss the fish, too.
Come From Away, music, lyrics and book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Musical staging, Kelly Devine; music supervision, Ian Eisendrath; set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Gareth Owen. With Sharone Sayegh, Harter Clingman, James Earl Jones II, Kevin Carolan, Adam Halpin. About 105 minutes. $49-$169. Through Jan. 5 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.