by MIKE CHAIKEN
Typically, when a historic event is turned into a book, movie, play, we are presented with heroes and villains. And everyone else is turned into mere wallpaper.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 is one of those events where the spotlight is typically turned, with good reason, on the heroes and villains of that day.
But, the day the towers fell affected more than just the people in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and the fields of Pennsylvania. There was an entire globe held hostage by the acts of a few.
For those of us who think upon, “Where were you when the towers fell?” we all were impacted in some way. And we all, more than likely, acted heroic that day by making a donation, collecting food and clothing for the men and women clearing the wreckage sites, saying a simple prayer for the lives that were lost, and so on.
“Come From Away” (which was developed at Goodspeed Musicals’ Festival of New Artists in East Haddam, Conn.) is a stage musical that shines a spotlight on the small acts of heroism that can have ripple effect on improving the world. And the stage show, which plays at The Bushnell in Hartford through May 5, does so in a stunning fashion that entertains us and allows us to reflect on how our lives were touched on that September day.
The show, based on a true story and written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, takes place hours and hours away from Ground Zero in the tiny village of Gander, Newfoundland, population of 9,000. Gander’s sole claim to fame is a large airfield leftover from the days when planes needed a place to stop to refuel before heading to Europe.
When the United States shut down its airspace following the terrorist attacks, nearly 40 planes and 7,000 passengers from all over the world were diverted to this airport in an area so desolate that if something did happen, the collateral damage would be far smaller than if the planes were taken to Toronto.
Gander is portrayed as a typical small town with typical small town manners and typical small town fears. But, as the show goes on, we find Gander is not a stereotypical small-minded small town as they embrace the passengers stranded in their midst.
The genius of “Come From Away” is that we are given recognizable characters such as Gander’s mayor, Gander’s head teacher, a mother of a firefighter worried about her son, a pilot trying to hold it all together, a passenger from Texas and one from the U.K. who fall into a romance, and so on. But the actors also portray an array of other characters necessary to populate the story. It’s an artistic choice that shows the response to the events of 9-11 were communal rather than individual.
The music from Sankoff and Hein also takes a communal approach where the collective is given more play than the individuals.
Yes, some characters break out from the pack to tell their story, such as Danielle K. Thomas (Hannah) in the heartbreaking “I Am Here” as she worries about her son, a New York firefighter. But the song is not just Hannah’s story, it’s the story of every mother of New York City first responder on Sept. 11.
But for the most part, the songs are choral ensemble pieces, arranged to great effect by Ian Eisendrath, that drive home the importance of banding together and working together. The ensemble numbers allow the audience to insert themselves and their own memories into the story unfolding on stage.
Since the ensemble work is key to the show’s success, no character—thus no performer – was placed on a pedestal above the others. If you were drawn to a particular performer, it probably was because you saw a little bit of yourself in the characters they portrayed.
To that end, the cast in toto was superb.
The music, with its Gaelic and Celtic bent, did a fantastic job at setting the place in Newfoundland. But it also was a fine choice because of the genre’s ability to stoke the energy of the cast and to evoke emotion in the hearts of the audience.
“Come from Away” clearly resonated with the audience at The Bushnell on April 30. Although, the show was performed straight through without an intermission, I saw no one near me fidgeting. Surprisingly, there also were no hushed apologies as people tried to sneak out for a quick toilet break.
And when the final note sounded for “Come From Away,” and the cast returned for its curtain call, there was less than a beat before the audience shot up from its seats to offer a standing ovation.
I give “Come From Away” at The Bushnell four out of four stars.
The show continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford on Wednesday and Thursday, May 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m.., Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 5 at 6:30 p.m. Matinees are on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
For tickets, go to Bushnell.org