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© Matthew Murphy 2016
© Matthew Murphy 2016
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Theater: Is 'Come From Away' 2017's Best New Musical?

Picture of Bill Stevenson
Updated: 17 May 2017
An uplifting show celebrates the community spirit elicited by the tragic events of 9/11. It might be heading for Tony Awards.

Sick of winter? Sick of politics? Feeling blah? If you’re looking for an uplifting show that will restore your faith in humanity, look no further than the spirited new musical Come From Away.

It tells the story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland (population 9,000), who selflessly welcomed the nearly 7,000 passengers who were stranded there after the FAA shut down the U.S. airspace on 9/11. It’s joyful, funny, beautifully staged, and features a terrific cast in multiple roles. The timing couldn’t be better for this inspiring show. With any luck it will be around to lift theatergoers’ spirits for some time.

Kendra Kassenbaum in ‘Come From Away’ | © Matthew Murphy 2016

The musical’s little-known composers are a Canadian husband-and-wife team, Irene Sankoff and David Hein. The only other credit mentioned in their bio is My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which was apparently a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival. One might not expect much from Come From Away if it hadn’t generated great buzz after productions in La Jolla, Seattle, and Toronto. Fortunately, it’s even better than I’d hoped it would be.

The townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland are quite down to earth. Claude, the mayor (Joel Hatch), starts his days at Tim Horton’s, even though he doesn’t drink coffee or eat donuts. It’s where everyone hears the local gossip. And that’s where Claude learns that 38 planes have been diverted to Gander’s airport. (The airport has a huge runway because transatlantic planes used to refuel there.) The people of Gander and surrounding towns leap into action to find food, lodging, and phones for the stranded, distressed passengers. They would heroically and tirelessly take care of their unexpected visitors for days.

The talented 12-person cast plays both the local population and the assorted passengers from various countries. Some were stuck on a plane for 28 hours before being allowed to get off; the mood improved considerably after the flight attendants unlocked the minibar. The actors deftly slip in an out of characters and accents. Caesar Samayoa plays half of a California gay couple and an Egyptian master chef, among other characters. Rodney Hicks is memorable as a New Yorker who worries that his wallet will be stolen. When asked to take barbecues from people’s yards for a cookout, he expects to be shot in the back; instead everyone invites him in for tea.

'Come From Away' ensemble | © Matthew Murphy 2016
‘Come From Away’ ensemble | © Matthew Murphy 2016

An emotional high point is a song in which people of different faiths, nationalities, and ethnicities pray together. Soon after there’s a jubilant scene in a pub featuring lively music, dancing, drinking, and kissing a giant cod. Soon after we hear the story of Beverley (Jenn Colella), the first female American captain in history. With her beautifully pure voice and authentic Texan accent, Colella is a standout in a wonderful ensemble.

She and director Christopher Ashley certainly deserve Tony nominations, and Come From Away should be a frontrunner for best musical. In his eloquent bio, Hicks writes, “My hope is that our piece moves you to a place of peace, joy, and renewed faith in the human spirit.” It did.

Come From Away is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036. Telecharge: 212 239 6200.