If you don’t come out with a smile after seeing the national tour of Come from Away (through Nov. 3 at the Academy of Music), your smile must be broken. Go see it, both to be happy and to remember that human goodness is real.
That’s the big takeaway from this ingeniously told, fast-paced show (100 minutes, no intermission), which is uplifting yet seldom saccharine.
It’s based on the remarkable true story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, on Sept. 11, 2001, when 38 airplanes, forbidden from U.S. airspace amid the 9/11 attacks, landed at the tiny town’s airport. Suddenly, a hamlet of not quite 10,000 had to host almost 7,000 people “come from away,” in the local Irish-inflected argot.
And what a job they did. Several tunes, including “Blankets and Bedding,” “Phoning Home,” and “On the Bus,” concern the logistics of this influx of displaced, anxious souls.
Storytelling and characterization are marvelous — this show is Hamilton’s equal in those regards.
Bluff, funny Kevin Carolan is Claude, mayor of Gander. Rough-hewn yet simpatico, he’s an ambassador for being “an islander.” Gander is a place where, “If you’re hoping for a harbor/ Then you’ll find an open door,” as the cast sings in the opener, “Welcome to the Rock.” And the deep story begins.
As “Welcome” barrels on, individual Gander residents learn of the tragedy, taking on the shock and sadness.
Beowulf Boritt’s spare staging — and clever use of chairs to evoke town council offices, airliner interiors, school cafeterias, and bars — is a big storytelling star. The dozen-strong cast, all of whom play several roles, excel in creating characters we care about.
Sharone Sayegh plays Bonnie, the local SPCA lady who risks her life to tend to the animals, including two bonobo chimpanzees, stranded in the cargo holds. James Earl Jones II is gut-busting as Bob, slow to accept that Ganderans are authentically nice and won’t steal his wallet or lock him up.
Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson steal audience members’ hearts as an unlikely couple in the making. And Marika Aubrey delivers maybe the highlight of the evening, “Me and the Sky,” sung as Beverley Bass, the first female American Airlines captain and a born leader.
For all its humanity, the musical doesn’t lie to us. Anger and racism break out among the passengers. We see their bewilderment, trauma, isolation — “In a town that’s suddenly doubled in population … I’m feeling so alone.” In “Prayer,” people of many faiths twine their hopes in a multilingual, multicultural plea.
But loss is real, no matter how we hope and love, as we see in Hannah, looking for a son. Danielle K. Thomas makes us feel it in the showstopping “I Am Here.”
Come from Away is a gem. Some dancing is ragged, but that seems to fit, and if we see signs of fatigue, well, the show is about halfway through a 65-stop haul that began in Seattle and is scheduled to end in Chicago next September.
It has been remarkably successful already, having recouped its investment after only 19 weeks on the road. I bet word of mouth is involved. This is not just a feel-good romp: This is a real-life story of our best arising from our worst.
Come from Away
Through Nov. 3 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.