Capitol Theatre, June 10


When Gander International Airport’s boss, Reg Wright, heard that Irene Sankoff and David Hein were creating Come from Away, he said, “You’re writing a show about giving people sandwiches? Good luck with that!” Someone else might have wished them luck writing a musical with no protagonist, or one in which people are so damned nice to each other. Thankfully Sankoff and Hein trusted their instincts, and the world is slightly better as a consequence.

Come from Away tells of the calamitous hours after 9/11, when US airspace was suddenly closed, and 38 planes were diverted to Newfoundland’s Gander. About the size of Katoomba, Gander suddenly had to feed, accommodate, clothe, comfort and provide phones for nearly 7,000 stranded passengers for five days.

Zoe Gertz and cast. Photos supplied.

So how do you possibly make a musical out of that? Intertwining narrative skill and commendably shorthand character depiction, Sankoff and Hein shaped their story with a score of protagonists rather than the usual one or two, having 12 actors play multiple roles. We are asked to make an emotional investment in these people very quickly, because it’s all over in 100 minutes (with no interval), and we oblige because we buy into the urgency of the situation – an urgency which, in turn, allows Sankoff and Hein to get away with concocting a drama out of human kindness. Having interviewed countless people, both locals and “come from aways” (as Newfoundlanders call blow-ins), the creators applied thriller-style narrative formulas, which they compounded with the momentum with their music.

The musical component is especially cunning, because apart from the galvanizing Blankets and Bedding and the tension-packed On the Edge, the songs themselves are seldom stunners in the way that Miranda’s routinely are in Hamilton, and nor do they play much of a role in helping to define the characters. What the music does do is brilliantly underscore the action, and it does this while drawing on Newfoundland’s proud Celtic heritage.

Photos supplied.

Equally cunning is the choice of characters required to make the story work: the local mayor (Gene Weygandt), for instance, whose main pre-9/11 concern was scrapping with the head of the bus drivers’ union (Douglas Hansell), while Hansell also plays Kevin T, an LA businessman wary of revealing his gay relationship with Kevin J (Ash Roussety) in this seemingly redneck environment. Similarly Bob (Kolby Kindle), a Black New Yorker wary of being robbed, shot or arrested, is stunned to find none of these outcomes on the Gander agenda. Other key characters include a pilot (Zoe Gertz), who understands the full implications of 9/11, and a Muslim chef (also Roussety).

Christopher Ashley’s production, co-staged with Kelly Devine on Beowulf Boritt’s resourcefully spare set, is largely constructed around the choreography of chairs, so that a bus journey from the airport can be depicted by Hansell steering an imaginary wheel, while everyone just vibrates their torsos. It is such touches amid the whole folksy conception, as much as strong individual performances (by the likes of Kindle and Gertz), that make the show pulse for most of its 100 minutes. When the intensity does fall away it’s because the niceness factor is briefly allowed to become twee, or because a lame song creeps in (Me and the Sky). The wonder is that the creators have much more often sidestepped the yawning pit of latent corniness to craft a show that not only makes one feel good, it rather inspires one to do good. Now that can’t be bad.

Until August 29.