The stage was awash with lively music, amity, optimism and national pride Tuesday for the opening-night performance of “Come From Away” at the Music Hall. The Tony Award-winning show, set in Newfoundland in far northeastern Canada, celebrates human resiliency on one of the darkest days of the 21st century.
This Canadian musical brims with upbeat messages about the inherent goodness in all people everywhere. The story is based on a true event: On Sept. 11, 2001, the unassuming citizens of the small, isolated town of Gander, suddenly found themselves responsible for housing and feeding thousands international travelers after the attack on the World Trade Center, when flights headed for the U.S. were diverted to Canadian airports. One of those was near Gander, where the locals opened their homes, gymnasiums and public buildings to some 6,600 passengers.
Gander wasn’t the only city in Canada to do so. But it was the one chosen as a setting by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this relentlessly upbeat show. Based on interviews the playwrights conducted with folks in Gander, the script is a busy, sprawling description of some of the experiences shared by locals and travelers.
In the mix are a budding love story as well as a longterm relationship that shows signs of fraying. An Egyptian traveler sparks suspicion and paranoia when all he wants to do is help. The mayor cuts a deal with striking school bus drivers to ferry passengers to nearby communities. A local animal lover tries to save pets and exotic animals on some of the rerouted planes.
Each performer in the cast of 12 plays more than one role. Some of the characters are based on real people, including mayor Claude Elliott (Kevin Carolan), trailblazing pilot Beverly Bass (Marika Aubrey) and passenger Kevin Tuerff, founder of an environmental marketing company who later dedicated his life to helping immigrants and refugees (played Tuesday by standby Aaron Michael Ray). Others are composites.
In essence, the material celebrates eccentricity. The townspeople have their own particular quirks — “Welcome to farthest place you’ll get from Disneyland/Fish and chips and shipwrecks, this is Newfoundland” they sing in the rousing opening number, “Welcome to the Rock.”
By the same token, the passengers from across the world make for an odd assortment for personalities. A divorced woman from Dallas and nerdy oil engineer from England bond and fall in love, while a gay couple who’s relationship is rocky discover to their amazement that the townspeople are remarkably tolerant of any and all lifestyles. Two mothers of firefighters, one from Gander, the other from New York waiting for word from her son, connect in their shared concern for the first responders at the World Trade Center.
If it all seems too good to be true, well, maybe it is. But the good will flowing from the stage is hard to resist.
The majority of the songs are group numbers. Executed by a crack Celtic band, the music ranges from generic-sounding show tunes to infectious folk-based romps. (Ironically, the best musical number is the thumping instrumental performed by the band as an encore at the end of the show; I wanted to see these guys perform a full set.)
The facts that inspired this musical could provide the makings of a deeply reflective meditation on human nature in the aftermath of a previously unimaginable catastrophe. But the writers — and, presumably, director Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony Award for his work on this show — shaped the material to be less philosophical and more sentimental with a liberal sprinkling of sitcom-caliber jokes. By so doing they clearly hit the jackpot. The Broadway production opened in 2017 and is still running.
So, yes, viewed objectively, an observer could find no shortage of nits to pick in this jokey, insistently optimistic crowd-pleaser. But the underlying reality of what happened in the days after 9-11 in Gander and small cities across Canada exerts its own power. Essentially, this is a tale of humans put to the test as they face loss and uncertain futures. That’s the story that matters, and it will linger in viewers’ memories long after the houselights come up.
“Come From Away” runs through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Music Hall. Call 800-745-3000 or visit www.americantheatreguild.com.