Holiday shows understandably tend towards the heartwarming, and the touring production of “Come From Away,” now at the Kennedy Center, fits the bill. It’s a rich, exhilarating story about the best of people at the worst of times.
Gander, Newfoundland, is where the story starts, on what appears an average day. “Welcome to the Rock,” a thrilling opener, establishes the high-energy and the pace of the show, as the townspeople welcome us to Newfoundland, to “fish and chips and shipwrecks.”
The weather may fierce, but the people are warm and inviting, a feeling underscored by the trees and antique chairs of Beowulf Boritt’s lovely set, which creates a domestic gathering space. And the townspeople do eventually gather as they learn that dozens of planes are being redirected to Gander’s tiny airport. The reason? It’s Sept. 11, 2001.
What follows is a whirlwind of near constant action, in movement and melody. Gander becomes a bustle of activity to meet the needs of a massive influx of “come from away’s,” a Canadian term for visitors or outsiders. The urgency and energy are heightened by a turntable and onstage musicians, who provide a near-constant beat that pulses throughout the show.
… a rich, exhilarating story about the best of people at the worst of times.
The show thrives on understated but clockwork choreography, as when a plane full of waiting passengers breathes in and out in weary unison. Howell Binkley’s innovative lighting design helps signal instant shifts between town and plane, as the visitors remain in the literal and figurative dark as to what has happened, and where they are.
The musical is also a striking showcase for the whole cast, who take on multiple roles, and multiple accents, playing both Ganderites and the many passengers they help. Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s book and lyrics impressively outline through-lines for townspeople and stranded passengers; Julie Johnson as the capable, organizing Beulah stands out, as does Sharone Sayegh as Bonnie, a rep for the SPCA who rescues all the animals stuck aboard the planes. Diane (Christine Toy Johnson) and Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) emerge as a nervous Texan and anxious Brit falling in love; Danielle K. Thomas gives an affecting performance as Hannah, an anguished mother waiting to hear about her son, a New York City firefighter.
The show underscores unity throughout; most singing is done by the ensemble, interspersed, throughout the spoken dialogue. Nevertheless, the story also acknowledges the many far-reaching consequences of 9/11, as when an Egyptian passenger (an excellent Nick Duckart) is treated with increasing fear and suspicion by passengers and airline crew.
While paying tribute to this dark time, “Come From Away” incorporates plenty of bright spots, especially as the town and stranded passengers grow in intimacy. A get-together at the local bar includes a competition to see who can be a Newfoundlander (it involves fish) and showcases foot-tapping folk music stylings, courtesy of the first rate onstage band (conducted by Cameron Moncur).
The finale ends the show as it began, with energy and harmony. It’s an irresistible message of the strength to be found in community, and one you’ll want to take with you.
Advisory: A camera flash effect is used in the performance. Recommended for age 10 and up.
Running Time: About 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
“Come from Away” runs through Jan. 5 at the Kennedy Center. For tickets or more information, click here.