Come From Away, directed by Christopher Ashley, plays Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre.
Come From Away, directed by Christopher Ashley, plays Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Musical theater is filled to the brim with improbable subject matter. Barbers and bakers who kill people and turn their victims into pies, high school loners who lie their way into popularity, even rapping Founding Fathers are par for the course in a genre where emotions run so high the only way people can get their feelings across is by singing.

A musical about the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, though? That's bound to raise the eyebrows of even the most seasoned theatergoers.

However, to refer to Irene Sankoff and David Hein's Come From Away at the Schoenfeld Theatre simply as a "9/11 musical" does it a major disservice. Telling the story of a small Canadian town that took in 38 diverted planes and their passengers after the FAA shut down American airspace, Come From Away is a beguiling portrayal of human kindness in the face of the worst horror imaginable — and a show that everybody needs to see.

The setting is Gander, Newfoundland, population roughly 10,000. The morning of that fateful day in 2001 was like any other; the most out-of-the-ordinary thing going on was a local school-bus-driver strike. Soon, word of the attacks on America begins to spread, and the citizens awaken to an even more startling piece of news: Gander International Airport, once a major refueling stop for transatlantic travel that has long been forgotten, is about to welcome 6,579 stranded people who aren't allowed to continue their journeys across the United States until further notice.

Gander, its citizens, and those of the surrounding environs are thoroughly ill equipped to welcome this many people, but they instantaneously spring into action. The schoolhouses and social halls are converted into shelters; the hockey rinks become gigantic refrigerators to store food. Marooned travelers are welcomed into the homes of townspeople for hot meals and showers. The events of that day form an unbreakable bond between the helpers and the helpless.

Unlike traditional musicals, Come From Away doesn't have a single focus; instead, the musical's authors provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the Gander citizens and the "come from aways" that landed there without much warning. A romance blooms between two stranded passengers, a middle-aged Texas divorcee (Sharon Wheatley) and an over-the-hill British oil tycoon (Lee MacDougall). A mother (Q. Smith) desperately waits by the phone to hear from her New York-based firefighter son. An SPCA volunteer (Petrina Bromley) takes it upon herself to care for the animals left in each plane's cargo hold.

Come From Away is the true definition of an ensemble piece, with the entirely excellent 12-member company of Broadway and Canadian theater vets switching back and forth between dozens of roles with impressive dexterity. In keeping with that idea, director Christopher Ashley has done a commendable job of building an ensemble that's diverse in both nationality and physicality. Aided by the appropriate workaday costumes by Toni-Leslie James, it is awfully nice to see real-looking people playing real people, and especially refreshing to see a show that places as much importance on the older generation as it does the younger one.

It's adorable to watch the late-in-life relationship between Wheatley and MacDougall blossom, and a thoroughly rewarding experience to see two older characters fall in love on a Broadway stage in a way that isn't played for comic relief. Smith has several beautiful scenes with the effortlessly warm Astrid Van Wieren (as Gander schoolmarm Beulah), who helps defuse the heartbreaking uncertainty of not knowing whether or not your child is still alive. Geno Carr, Joel Hatch, Rodney Hicks, Kendra Kassebaum, Chad Kimball, and Caesar Samayoa expertly mine the text for both its humor and pathos, while Jenn Colella completes the cast in a fiercely badass turn as Beverly Bass, the first-ever female pilot at American Airlines, who is stranded alongside her passengers.

On an airy, woodland set by Beowulf Boritt, Come From Away is a thoroughly moving experience, brimming with humanity and tolerance. Admittedly, it's not without its flaws; Sankoff and Hein's sweet Celtic melodies have a tendency to blend in together, and the book could afford to flesh out certain situations with greater depth. But Ashley's fast-paced staging is mesmerizing, Kelly Devines foot-stomping choreography is joyful, and an awesome onstage jam band led by Ian Eisendrath plays August Eriksmoen's driving orchestrations with excitement.

In the end, it's easy to see why Come From Away has played sold-out engagements across the country and in its native Canada before landing on Broadway. It may not be perfect, but this optimistic story leaves us feeling hopeful that goodness still exists in a world that, quite often nowadays, feels thoroughly devoid of it.