Musical remembers the day air travel came to a halt

Air passengers grounded by 9/11 discover Canadian hospitality in Come From Away. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Sometimes you need a reminder that human beings are capable of kindness. Come From Away—a touring production of which is now playing Columbus’s Ohio Theatre—is just such a reminder.

The Irene Sankoff/David Hein musical is a breezy and heartwarming account of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When commercial airlines were ordered to land their planes out of fear that more could be commandeered and turned into flying bombs, the small Canadian community was forced to accept 38 or them. That nearly doubled its population and presented it with the sudden need to feed and house 7,000 strangers, many of whom didn’t even speak English.

As the musical reveals, the Newfoundlanders responded with ingenuity and generosity, providing food, shelter, clothes and other necessities. Even more importantly, they made the waylaid passengers feel safe and welcome in a world that suddenly seemed more dangerous than ever.

Director Christopher Ashley, who won the musical’s sole Tony Award after it opened on Broadway in 2017, stages five days’ worth of events in a fast-paced production that seldom even stops for applause. It’s a marvel of efficiency thanks partly to Beowulf Boritt’s set and Howell Binkley’s lighting, both of which are versatile enough to allow locations and moods to be changed in the blink of an eye.

Adding to the efficiency are 12 busy cast members who portray a multitude of both locals and visitors with the help of costume tweaks and an array of accents. While this is essentially an ensemble piece, several characters and the actors who play them are given a chance to stand out. Among them:

• Janice (Julia Knitel), a newbie TV reporter who’s overwhelmed by what undoubtedly will be the biggest story of her career.

• Nick and Diane (Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson), an Englishman and Texan who turn to each other for friendship and perhaps more.

• Kevin T. and Kevin J. (Jeremy Woodard and Nick Duckart), a gay couple who stress over how open to be about their relationship in this isolated community.

• Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), a passenger who’s desperate to learn whether her son, a New York firefighter, is safe.

• Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh), director of the area SPCA, who takes it on herself to seek out and care for the cats, dogs and other animals trapped in the cargo areas of the grounded planes.

Members of the band cut loose during one of the musical’s more raucous moments. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Note: Bonnie’s real-life counterpart, Bonnie Harris, appeared at a local preview event late last year to help publicize Gander’s connection to Central Ohio. Namely, two of the endangered great apes known as bonobos (referred to in the play as “bonobo chimpanzees”) were among the animals, and one of them was a female destined for the Columbus Zoo. The audience greeted this bit of information with applause on opening night, accidentally covering up the additional announcement that the zoo named her first son “Gander” in honor of the town that had served as her temporary refuge.

Despite the musical’s strengths, it must be said that one point near the beginning seems briefly off. When Gander officials and residents learn of the Sept. 11 attacks, they instantly begin planning how to deal with the diverted flights. Considering what a shocking event 9/11 was for America and the world, didn’t anyone stop long enough to say, “Terrorists did what?” Overall, though, Come From Away does an admirable job of condensing five days’ worth of individual trauma and communal kindness into an inspiring and uplifting 100 minutes.  

And it does it with a collection of tunes that are nicely sung by the actors and energetically accompanied by the offstage band. Though the songs mainly serve the plot and characters and rarely stand out, they become more and more infectious as the evening goes on. Best of all is the Irish-flavored “Finale” that accompanies the final bows and continues long after the actors have left the stage.

In other words, don’t plan on making a quick exit.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Come From Away through Feb. 13 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission). Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased at the CBUSArts Ticket Office (39 E. State St.), online at capa.com or by phone at 614-469-0939.

Author: Richard Ades

Richard Ades was the arts editor of The Other Paper, a weekly news-and-entertainment publication, from 2008 until it was shut down on Jan. 31, 2013. He also served as TOP's theater critic throughout its 22-year existence.

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