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‘Come From Away’ is brilliant and moving and marvelous

A deeply embraceable show brimming with all the right feels, tells a big story about small kindnesses with an understated and ultimately lovely theatrical stylishness. 

From Away” performs a scene from the musical.
The cast from the first North American tour of “Come From Away” performs a scene from the musical.
Matthew Murphy

Immediately after planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, an emergency order went out to clear the skies. Nearly 40 planes were diverted to Newfoundland, Canada, and for five days the small, remote town of Gander (population circa 7,000) was forced to welcome – and house, and feed, and in some cases comfort – nearly as many visitors.

The musical “Come From Away,” a deeply embraceable show brimming with all the right feels, tells this big story about small kindnesses with an understated and ultimately lovely theatrical stylishness.

Twelve versatile performers portray dozens of characters, from quirky locals to confused foreigners, and the ensemble narrates the story even while they act it out. Director Christopher Ashley moves us easily from place to place, convincingly depicting an airplane with nothing more than an arrangement of chairs and a few gestures to adjust an overhead air vent, and Beowolf Boritt’s bare essentials set design becomes a communal bar with little more than a table and a lit-up Molson sign.

Husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the show — book, music and lyrics — based on interviews with the participants on the 10th anniversary of the events. Although something of a docu-musical, it’s obvious that overall storytelling and sentiment take priority over factual fidelity. It’s the overarching story that matters here. The small-town Newfoundlanders embrace the monumental scope of the required hospitality with no-nonsense ingenuity and overwhelming decency, and the visitors, who literally find themselves trapped in the middle of nowhere when they most want to be home, gradually transform from a mass of frustration to coping patience to gratitude.

You can almost consider the ensemble a type of Greek chorus — or perhaps two, with the same performers portraying both locals and those “from away.” Although there are likable characters aplenty, the characterizations are never deeply enriched and many of them are barely more than a type plus an accent and a personal detail or two, often convenient (he’s English, was on his way to a conference, and single!).

Character sing their story in the Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
Character sing their story in the Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
Matthew Murphy

With rare exceptions, every song is credited to the company overall, since they tend to experience the events as a group. For example, “Darkness and Trees” provides the reaction of a group of the displaced as they are bused to places of shelter very late at night, not really knowing where they are. “On the Edge” depicts the locals’ concern over their guests’ mounting frustration, leading to the most fun sequence of the evening, about being a Newfoundlander and kissing fish.

Yes, there are times when the show verges on feeling over-generalized. For example the lone Middle Eastern character (an Egyptian chef played by Nick Duckart, who is especially transformative from one personage to the next), is treated with vague suspicion. But overall, the strategy absolutely works: give us just enough information for each individual’s narrative to have a beginning and end within a contained timeframe, and then focus on the shared humanity.

It’s hard to stress enough the craft of this show and how honestly and simply moving it is.

The score has just enough variation and hits key and oh-so-recognizable thoughts and feelings — particularly “Me and the Sky,” pilot Beverley’s (a wonderful Becky Gulsvig) song of lost idealism.

Ashley (who was honored with a Tony Award for his directing, even while “Dear Evan Hansen” took home the most trophies that same year) beautifully balances the show’s emotionality with a breakneck pace of narrative and movement. He hits one heartfelt sentiment after another but never, ever lingers on it, which keeps the show from feeling manipulative. Kelly Devine is credited for musical staging rather than choreography, which gives you a sense that this show doesn’t launch from reality into dance, as much as styles reality into movement that evokes authentic inner feeling.

The humor — and there’s a lot of it — manages to always be tonally right and sometimes sneakily clever. You may think it’s a good-old Canadian joke when the mayor (a centrally important and decidedly excellent performance by Kevin Carolan), being briefed on the flurry of events, pulls out a seemingly unimportant detail — asking, with overstated shock, if they’re really cancelling hockey. But you soon realize that the unused hockey rink is in fact the solution to the bigger problem of refrigerating the food for thousands being delivered to the remote location with no other way to store it. And there’s an awful lot packed in the simple greeting “Welcome to Walmart” when it’s quickly followed by, “Would you like to come to my house and take a shower?”

It’s the collection of such small moments — each one capturing something simple but deep — that add up to make “Come From Away” a special show.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.