Denver debut of 9/11 musical relentlessly upbeat
It’s sometimes hard to remember, nearly two decades on, all of the emotional detail surrounding the terrifying events of 9/11. We had no idea what else might be coming, and there was no limit to the imagination regarding where the terrorists might strike next. The conspiracy theories that followed, the horrible wars, the multi-leveled human fallout impacting multiple generations, the history of the world and the skyline of Manhattan — all that we can’t forget.
And then there were all the offsetting stories of human kindness: the lines of people wanting to give blood (although it turned out to be mostly unnecessary given the near-absence of live victims), the armies of cops, firefighters, volunteers and others who did everything possible to recover the victims and then restore the site.
There was also a story, nearly forgotten, about a tiny corner of Canada where the townsfolk turned out as a body to assist thousands of stranded airline passengers after the FAA shut down the airspace over the U.S.
For four days in Gander, Newfoundland and a few surrounding towns, residents played host to the stunned, scared and bored (after being cooped up on the planes for 10 hours or more) passengers who at first had no idea what was going on.
The people were nice, the passengers were appreciative and some lifelong relationships were forged.
And then they made a musical about it.
Ken Burns effect
Is it too soon to sing and dance along to a story about 9/11?
Well, all things in context. “Come From Away” is not about terrorism or patriotism or homeland security or any of that. It’s about two groups of people being flung together unexpectedly during a particularly frightening period in history. And after just a few days, they were all gone, leaving an exhausted but forever changed bunch of Canadians in their wake.
Not an easy story upon which to base a musical, especially if you go for complete realism. The approach taken by Irene Sankoff and David Hein — who wrote the book, music and lyrics — is to tackle it in completely linear fashion, with a dozen or so actors playing all the characters. They use a spare set with only some trees as background and a great many chairs that serve as airline seats, bar stools and a lot more. To keep details from slowing things down, the actors take turns yelling out expository lines that make “Come From Away” sometimes feel like a musical documentary.
It’s an odd, fast-paced show, full of deliberately corny jokes but plenty of other laugh lines that struck me as hokey. Its best attribute is the believability of the characters and a marked lack of stock types who might otherwise creep into a small-town tale. Among the passengers are a Muslim chef, a gay couple and a female pilot, while the townsfolk are an eclectic lot who know each other all too well. At first the question of whether they could limit their own bickering enough to help the passengers seemed like it might drive some of the action, but before long they gel as a team to confront the problem at hand of how to feed, house, clothe and get phone and internet service to nearly 7,000 people.
It took me a while to warm up to this show. With a run time of about 1:40 and no intermission, it felt like a sprint to get the whole story told, and there’s not a lot of opportunity to slow down and really zoom in on any of the relationships being formed. Sure, there are a couple of love stories teased out of the crowd and plenty of other vignettes involving all the characters. But it’s an ensemble cast with no main characters, making it difficult to hang on to any particular story.
As to the musical portion, there’s a fantastic Celtic-style band playing just offstage and which occasionally integrates itself into the action. The songs themselves are almost all big ones sung by the entire cast, and the dance numbers accompanying them involve so much furniture rearranging as to make the logistics of the choreography more interesting than the number itself. Other than the initial number “Welcome to the Rock” (which reprises at the end), I couldn’t from memory name another one of the songs from the show. They were zippy Celtic numbers sung with superb energy by the well-rounded cast, but not standouts on their own.
Like the 747s parked out at the Gander airport, “Come From Away” does eventually make a decent landing, with the climax of the departure coming in multiple stages as the airport struggles to accommodate all the jets. The high emotions are captured in the closing number and we’re left with the sense that yes, no matter how monumentally crummy life can be, if you’re lucky there will always be people around to help you get through it.