‘Come From Away’ will lift you, steal your heart

The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018

BOSTON — While the fires of Sept. 11, 2001 were still burning, some 7,000 strangers descended on a small Canadian town and discovered what they had in common was much greater than what separated them

The tragedy that was 9/11 resulted in a five-day forced marriage between occupants of the 38 planes that were forced to land in the international airport in Gander in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and the 9,000 residents, who opened their homes and hearts to the visitors while the U.S. airspace was frozen after the multiple attacks.

From those events sprang “Come From Away” which became the unlikeliest of musicals. but a huge hit nonetheless, a rousing, emotional, funny tribute to five days that brought out the best in all and forged unbreakable bonds between the passengers and their hoists.  

It was nominated for seven Tonys in 2017, winning Best Direction for Christopher Ashley, but also copping Drama Desk Awards and Outer Circle Critics Awards for Outstanding Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Best Book of a Musical, as well as two Olivier Awards

“Come From Away” is an affectionate term coined for outsiders from Newfoundlers, who typically “screech-in” newcomers by having then down a shot of fortified rum called “screech,” give a short speech and then kiss a dead codfish.

There were three guests of honor on the opening night of “Come From Away” at the Citizens Bank Opera House, two of whom are portrayed in the musical: Beverly Bass, one of  the first three female pilots in the history of America Airlines and its first female captain, portrayed by Marika Aubrey; former Mayor Claude Elliott, portrayed by Kevin Carolan, who begins each day at the local Tim Horton’s to feel the pulse of the town; and Dr. Karolyn Lee, who tended to the needs of stranded passengers after the attacks.

The amazing 12-member cast switches shifts gears quickly to become a myriad of quirky, eclectic characters that included not only the mayor, but Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), the SPCA worker who cared for 19 animals, including not one but two chimpanzees, and Oz the constable, (Harter Clingman), part of a 2-man local law enforcement force stretched, to be kindly, rather thin.

Then there are passengers such as Hannah (Amelia Cormack), a mother who spends long, endless days wondering if her son, a firefighter in New York City, is alive or dead, comforted by Beulah Cooper (Julie Johnson), the treasurer of the ladies’ auxiliary for the Royal Canadian Legion in Gander on 9/11 who  served the “come from away” guests at the Legion hall when they arrived. The Kevins, Kevin T (Brandon Springman) and Kevin J (Nick Duckart), a gay couple in a troubled relationship, befriend Nick (Chamblee Ferguson), an Englishman, and Diane (Christine Toy Johnson), a Texan, who begin an unlikely friendship.  

A black man named Bob (James Earl Jones II) is exposed to the joys of Irish whiskey by his host, while a Muslim named Ali ( Duckart in a dual role) is shown kindness that he longs to repay before having to confront a new reality after 9/11.

The creators of the musical, the Canadian husband-wife team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein, have fashioned a score that celebrates the Celtic roots of the music played on the island, a score stylishly and energetically performed by a six-piece band on stage.

Musical highlights include the opening number, “Welcome to the Rock”; “Me and the Sky,” a tribute to the open skies and perseverance sung by Aubrey as Beverly Bass; and the moving “Something’s Missing.”

Given the events that form the backdrop of the show, it is awe-inspiring how Hein and Sandoff have crafted a piece that is so relentlessly upbeat and uplifting, as well as providing laughter at almost every turn.  

The musical was a triumphant moment for the proud residents of the island province of Newfoundland, one of the Canadian Maritime Provinces, who through the years have often been looked down upon by their fellow Canadians, sometimes using other a rather derogatory term. Here, they often poke fun at themselves while simultaneously pouring their heart and soul into taking care of their “guests.”

A historical note: Gander’s airport was the largest on the planet in 1940 and played a crucial role in the ferrying of aircraft from North America to Britain during the Second World War. Canadian, American, and British troops all served at Gander, while more than 1,500 Newfoundland civilians found employment there. My late father, Thomas J. Fahey Jr., and his crew had a stopover there to refuel their B-17 bomber on the way to Europe.

The story of “Come From Away” has never ended. Many of those involved reunited in Newfoundland 10 years later in 2011, and the friendships continue to this day.

In an interview, co-creator Hein summed up the musical’s message: “The mayor [Claude Elliott] likes to say, ‘On the first day, we had 7,000 strangers on the tarmac. By the middle of the week, we had 7,000 friends. And by the end of the week, we said goodbye to 7,000 family members.’”

The national touring company of “Come From Away.” Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Musical staging by Kelly Devine. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Set design by Gareth Owen. Music supervision by Ian Eisendrath. At the Citizens Bank Opera House through Nov. 17. BroadwayinBoston.com.

The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018