“Come From Away,” the multi-award-winning musical and Tony Award nominee based on events during 9/11, is set in the small Newfoundland town of Gander—itself a major character in the play—where 38 international flights were diverted when United States airspaces were closed following world-shaking attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
The play, which is based on interviews with townspeople and passengers, was wildly popular on Broadway for years, helping New York audiences temper the effects of unspeakable tragedy with a vision of the Canadians’ heart-warming generosity, empathy and community building with their international visitors—in short, humanity at its best.
After a five-year run, the Broadway production closed in October 2022. Now, the show’s North American tour (directed by Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony) returns to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre (it opened locally in 2019), bringing husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff’s musical to new audiences.
The cast of 12 is generally excellent, shifting in and out of dual roles as Gander citizens with predictable everyday lives and distinctive Newfoundland accents to arriving airplane passengers who are stunned, frightened and suspicious.
The set, too, undergoes frequent rearrangement. Chairs positioned for a low-key labor dispute between the Gander mayor and school bus drivers morph into rows of airplane seats carrying international passengers, puzzled by their emergency landing and still in the dark about the terrorist attacks.
Some characters stand out. There’s Beverley (Marika Aubrey), the pilot of a stranded American Airlines flight. “Me and the Sky,” the number detailing the realization of her career aspirations, provides an uplifting antidote to the horror associated with airplanes on 9/11.
At other times, the show focuses on a budding romance between an English oil executive Nick (James Kall) and a Dallas divorcee Diane (Christine Toy Johnson), or a mother (Danielle K. Thomas) frantically trying to contact her New York firefighter son. Their vignettes and moving songs personalize the story’s larger themes.
However, five years following its 2017 Broadway opening, the show’s celebration of small-town virtues isn’t particularly refreshing, and its inspirational moments are somewhat contrived. The relief that the gay couple, both named Kevin, feels learning that townsfolk accept them into their bar is far too expected an outcome. And the internal strength of the Muslim chef faced with indignities suggests a false note.
At the end, the long dramatic and musical conclusion, while underscoring the resilience of the human spirit, also feels a tad too pat and sentimental.
Yet “Come From Away” still accomplishes much that it undertakes and evokes tears from those who remember the pivotal events of the time well, albeit with the distance time brings that sets it apart from the here-and-now.
“Come From Away” continues through April 23 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$137 at (888) 746-1799 or broadwaysf.com.