Review: A 9/11 Musical, Set in Newfoundland, Hits Close to Home

Scene from the Broadway musical, "Come From Away." Photo: Matthew Murphy

Mar. 16, 2017

To put on a show in New York about 9/11 that is set far away from Ground Zero is an intriguing, and possibly daring, proposition. And this one is a musical no less.

Come From Away, now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street, tells the story of the Newfoundland town of Gander where planes that could no longer fly into U.S. airspace were diverted on that fateful day. Amid so many of the city’s 9/11 stories, what can we learn from this tale that literally comes from away?

It turns out quite a lot about the vagaries of fate and the strength of human kindness, not to mention that the most unlikely stories can make powerful musical theater.

With a cast of just 12 actors, Come From Away manages to pack in a wide array of characters—both the townspeople of Gander with their thick Newfoundland accents and the passengers, with accents from all over the world, who landed in this remote spot unaware of the cataclysmic events. The tiny town has a two-person police department but a big airport left over from an era when planes needed to refuel en route. On 9/11, 38 planes landed carrying 6,579 people, doubling Gander’s population and changing the town forever.

In the shows opening song, the town is described as “the farthest place you can get from Disneyland” and in another number, as “the middle of nowhere, it’s the middle of who knows where.” Under Christopher Ashley’s meticulous direction, the actors transform 12 chairs and two tables into the school, the diner, the animal shelter, the planes and the school buses that ferried the stranded from the airport to the town.

The influx of people caused chaos for the small community—where would they sleep, what would they eat, would there be enough toilet paper and what about phones? We meet the local TV reporter on her first day on the job and with the story of her career, portrayed with delicious wholesomeness by Kendra Kassebaum. The school librarian, a mesmerizing Astrid van Wieren, opens the doors of her school with can-do pragmatism, and Petrina Bromley’s frenetic character takes on the animals that arrived that day. Everyone rallied round and embraced those who “came from away” in what the show makes you feel was one helluva hospitable hug. That strength of human kindness is what makes this show so compelling. It’s not dissimilar to the outpouring of generosity and concern that deluged local schools in Tribeca and Battery Park City with donations following 9/11 as people around the world felt compelled to express their support.

The ensemble cast is an exceptionally talented group and comes in all shapes and demographics—it’s one of the most unglamorous and diverse troupes ever to grace a Broadway stage. And that’s a good thing because what comes through is that these are real people telling real stories. At the show I attended several of the “real” people were in the audience. Among them was the real-life female pilot (who was greeted as a celebrity by many in the theater) played by Jen Colella, a stand-out character in the show. The couple that fell in love when they met in Gander (Sharon Wheatley and Lee MacDougall are their stage personas ) were also there for the show’s New York debut. Come from Away has developed a bit of a camp following as those portrayed in it have supported and reveled in its growing success. They also have attended sell-out performances in La Jolla, Washington DC, Toronto and Gander itself.

The writers, a Canadian couple, Irene Sankoff and David Hien, who were working in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, spent months in Gander researching what happened that strange week. Their nose for a story and ear for local color infuse this show with poignant, telling and laugh-out-loud moments. They are also adept at composing foot-tapping, folk-infused narrative songs.

It’s an emotional roller coaster of a show and at some points gasps of horror and sniffles of sadness can be heard in the auditorium. As the lights came up, following an extended standing ovation, the conversation turned to what nearly everyone remembers—their own very personal story of 9/11. Although this story comes from far away, it feels very comfortingly and reassuringly close to home.

Come From Away is playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St. Click here for tickets.

Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hien.

Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission