The husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s sole theater credit a decade ago was a Toronto Fringe Festival breakout called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. Before that, they lived in New York, where Sankoff took acting classes and performed and Hein worked in a recording studio. Reading their resumes then, one wouldn’t necessarily have pegged them as the creators of a smash hit less than a decade later.
But the producer Michael Rubinoff approached them about writing a show based on Operation Yellow Ribbon — Gander, Newfoundland’s reception of 7,000 international passengers from 38 planes diverted there after U.S. airspace was closed on 9/11.
In 2011, the couple went to a 10-year reunion, in Gander, of passengers and hosts, listened to their stories, and wrote Come From Away, which was workshopped in Ontario, played in La Jolla, Seattle, and D.C., and then became a Broadway hit in 2017.
Now it’s back in Washington, at the Kennedy Center through January 5, in a touring production so rousing and moving that it felt like part musical, part religious revival. The standing ovation looked more like Nats fans bursting out of their seats for a Juan Soto homer than like the usual theater crowd hesitantly looking around, saying to themselves, “Well, I’ll stand if she stands.” The crowd clapped boisterously along with the fab on-stage Irish-folky fiddle-and-flute band after the cast’s curtain call, and would have happily partied with the musicians till breakfast.
As the earth melts into environmental oblivion, the leader of the free world picks on a visionary 16-year-old girl, and dictators and liars spin angry nationalistic populaces into self-destructive choices, audiences are understandably starved for life-affirming messages about the fundamental goodness of quirky, everyday folk.
Here that theme is brought home by a splendid cast of 12 that manages to feel like a hundred. That’s partly because they are wizards at persona and accent changes (huzzah and a bottle of screech to dialect coach Joel Goldes). But it’s also because Christopher Ashley’s direction and Kelly Devine’s musical staging, timed scrupulously to Howell Binkley’s dynamic and un-gimmicky lighting, turn Beowulf Boritt’s handsome revolving-stage set into a steady stream of moods, moments, and settings.
Among those: Claustrophobic aircraft the “planers” aren’t allowed out of. The airport where their passports are screened. The chaotic grammar school they’re housed in. A busy Tim Horton’s and a boisterous bar where the locals gossip and decompress.
The performance is a lesson in the magic that can be cast by a tight ensemble. If they had to perform it in a prairie with no set or props at all, it would still be formidable.
Come From Away closes January 5, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
The score, under music director Cameron Moncur, is largely in jig-hopping, foot-stomping service to the story. But a few songs and performers stand out.
Marika Aubrey, as Beverley, powerfully renders “Me and the Sky.” It’s about becoming a female airline pilot when that was still pretty much unheard of, but also about how the 9/11 terrorists stole from us — for a while at least — the joy of the skies. Danielle K. Thomas, as Hannah, bemoans, in “I Am Here,” the helplessness of being so far from her New York firefighter son. Kevin Carolan, as Gander’s mayor, Claude, powers up the “Screech In” cod-kissing, hooch-shooting Newfoundland initiation ceremony. And “Prayer” is a gorgeous meld of Protestant, Jewish, Hindi, and Muslim invocations. If it doesn’t leave your eyes moist, see a psychiatrist.
Nick Duckart gave what outraged weight he could to the too-slight role of Ali, a Muslim passenger strip-searched at the airport and kept at a distance by his fellow passengers. This is a character who deserved more psychological revelation and a backstory song, but, a cynic might speculate, that could have dampened the — let’s face it — overriding kumbaya quintessence of this musical.
And in general, for all the documentary basis, the characterizations are a little shallow and the script sometimes cloying. The quippy gay couple. The awkward Englishman stumbling into romance with a scrappy divorcee from Dallas. The townsfolk bickering over their bus-driver strike over morning coffee. It’s the stuff of real life but frothed, it sometimes felt, into a prime-time dialogue souffle — Cheers meets Northern Exposure.
Still, within those limits, Come From Away fulfills its cathartic mission exceptionally.
It’s only after you leave the theater that you remember that, as The Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers have detailed this week, 9/11 led us into a disastrous and cluelessly led war in Afghanistan that has yet to end, not to mention its reckless offshoot in Iraq and the “enhanced interrogation” morass.
The dark musicals about those will be far harder to stomach — and all the more necessary for that.
Come From Away Book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Featuring Sharone Sayegh, Harter Clingman, Marika Aubrey, Julia Knitel, James Earl Jones II, Kevin Carolan, Adam Halpin, Andrew Samonsky, Chamblee Ferguson, Nick Duckart, Danielle K. Thomas, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson. Musicians: Cameron Moncur, Isaac Alderson, Kiana June Weber, Adam Stoler, Martin Howley, Max Calkin, Steve Holloway, Ben Morrow. Dance captain, Jane Bunting. Scenic design, Beowulf Boritt. Costume design, Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design, Howell Brinkley. Sound design, Gareth Owen. Music supervision, Ian Eisendrath. Musical staging, Kelly Devine. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.