Once in a while, an event occurs that is so viscerally powerful that you will always remember exactly what you were doing when it happened. Most people over 70 will remember what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. People my age remember the Challenger disaster vividly (I was in my 6th-grade classroom watching the launch on TV). Arguably even more tragic are the events that transpired on September 11, 2001. From the dust of the wreckage, though, came hope and a unified country. Come From Away is a story of that hope and unification. It makes its Sacramento premiere this week in a special engagement that had been postponed since 2020.
Come From Away is a story of light in the darkness and the power of human kindness. It’s based on the true story of 38 planes that were redirected to the small Newfoundland town of Gander on September 11 after the attacks occurred and US airspace was shut down. The community was ill-equipped to handle a sudden influx of 7,000 newcomers but banded together to feed, clothe, house, and welcome every displaced passenger. With book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein (My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding), Come From Away opened on Broadway in 2017 and earned 7 Tony nominations with one win for Best Direction of a Musical.
An atypical event deserves a show that eschews convention. Come From Away breathes new life into the new 2022 Broadway on Tour season with a diverse cast and an innovative set design by Beowulf Boritt. The 12-person ensemble handily maneuvers the 12-chair set to fashion such locations as a Tim Hortons, a pub, a Newfoundland school, and even an airplane. The band that is cleverly camouflaged onstage quickly morphs into a surprising, foot-stomping pub sensation with the Celtic-inspired audience favorite, “Screech In.” Even the back wall doubles as the cargo section of a grounded plane, housing everything from cats to pregnant bonobo monkeys.
As versatile as the set are the performers. All twelve segue seamlessly from speaking “Newfoundlander” to an American accent, with some tackling the other backgrounds represented in the “plane people,” as the locals call them. More importantly, all of them are truly funny. What I appreciate about this show is its sensitive handling of a topic that has to be one of the most difficult to tackle. Would anyone want to go see a show that’s only about the dark sides of 9/11? No, that would be far too depressing. Come From Away explores the emotions, racial tensions, and hardships that all the passengers felt, but infuses the dialect with humor before any of us can become rooted in sadness. It is equally witty, poignant, and mesmerizing. My litmus test of a great show is asking myself if I would go see it again the same week. The answer is yes, a resounding yes!
Just as Mr. Rogers is famously quoted as saying, “Look for the helpers,” Come From Away expresses a similar sentiment. The pilot of the rerouted plane tells us, “It’s not about the sadness of 9/11, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.” While we will never forget the horror of that day, we can also remember the capacity of the human heart to be one of those helpers.
Come From Away plays at the SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center through September 25. Tickets may be found at BroadwaySacramento.com, by calling (916) 557-1999, or by visiting the Broadway Sacramento Box Office at 1419 H Street.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy