Review

Generosity overcomes terrorism in unpretentious 'Come From Away'

The musical 'Come From Away' tells how Newfoundlanders rallied to help airline passengers stranded after 9/11

Terrorists make the covers of newspapers while those who selflessly give comfort and support in times of crisis are usually relegated to the back pages.

"Come From Away," the small yet stirring new musical that opened last week at La Jolla Playhouse, tries to correct that injustice in a story that received some media attention but couldn't help getting lost in the welter of urgent 9/11 concerns.

The show — written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a Canadian husband-and-wife writing team, and directed with invigorating verve by La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley — tells the true story of a Canadian town that sheltered thousands of airline passengers whose flights had been diverted on Sept. 11, 2001.

If this doesn't sound like such a big deal, imagine the population of your community nearly doubling in a single morning, forcing you and your neighbors to scramble for bedding, baby formula, pet supplies and telephones, not to mention breakfast, lunch and dinner for nearly 7,000 distressed travelers from all parts of the globe.

On that infamous Tuesday, Gander, Newfoundland, a dot on Canada's map, was jolted out of its normally staid routine. Once an important airline hub where planes would refuel on transatlantic flights, the town is humorously summed up at the talky top of the number "Welcome to Newfoundland": "There's a two-person police department/An elementary school/An SPCA/A local TV station/Did we mention the airport?"

The good citizens of Gander, ordinary folks indifferent to the spotlight, marshaled their resources not with grudging duty but with genuine fellow-feeling for the tired, scared and bewildered occupants of the 38 planes that landed at their airport. A character updating the tally reports that, by the end of the first night, as the planes slowly emptied, the population rose from approximately 9,000 to 17,000.

Residents found little time for sleep — or complaining — amid all their volunteering. For the few days that American airspace remained eerily quiet, a backwater generously hosted the world.

This touching story rides on a ceaseless flow of rock, folk and Gaelic-sounding strains, performed by an onstage band under the music supervision of Ian Eisendrath. The sound is infectious, inviting people from different backgrounds to meld together in a multicultural jig — one that the characters from the musical "Once" would likely find impossible to resist.

This is a choral musical in the sense that it is a true ensemble effort, with no one character or singer allowed to dominate. Although there is a lot of veteran talent on hand, the production is refreshingly star-free.

Better still, the cast members, who pitch in to portray both residents and visitors alike, wear the ordinariness of their characters with a dignified difference. Sometimes with a show of this sort, there's a subtle yet detectable condescension, a sense of actors champing at the bit to play simple folk.

Not here. This is an everyman and everywoman musical performed by their thespian equivalents. Easy to overlook, these performers don't demand your attention, yet when they have a moment to reveal themselves they glow with authentic personality.

Claude (Joel Hatch) is the folksy Mayor of Gander who may not be accustomed to crises, but when one hits, he proves himself up to the challenge. Bonnie (Petrina Bromley), a mother who volunteers at the local SPCA, is the only one to consider the plight of the scared and hungry animals trapped in cargo holds and, disregarding security restrictions, she cares for them as though they were her own.

Beverley (Jenn Colella, putting her wonderfully textured singing voice to memorable use) is a pilot who maintains her professional cool for the sake of her passengers. Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren), a local mother with a firefighter son, stands by Lana (Q. Smith), whose NYC firefighter son is reported missing.

There's a love story of sorts between Diane (Sharon Wheatley), a middle-aged Texas divorcee, and Nick (Lee MacDougall), a shy oil engineer from England. Colin (Chad Kimball) and his boyfriend/secretary, also named Colin (Caesar Samayoa), aren't so lucky — this historic predicament reveals that maybe they aren't ideally suited for one another after all.

Taken individually, these stories aren't enough to hang a musical on, but collectively they make for an affecting one-act show. The situation is slightly overstretched by Sankoff and Hein, who ought to embrace their work's small-scale nature and not worry about its commercial potential.

Only 100 minutes long, "Come From Away" would benefit from a 20-minute trim. It could also use a catchier title and some sharpening of its political awareness. (The few allusions to Muslims and ethnic profiling seem perfunctory, to say the least.)

Broadway doesn't strike me as a natural destination, though the production, a collaboration with Seattle Repertory Theatre, is staged with remarkable finesse and buoyancy. Ashley's direction lifts the material without overselling it.

On a spare wooden set with a few pieces of basic furniture, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt finds ways of materializing the unpretentious spirit of Newfoundland. Howell Binkley's lighting makes the shifts in locale from plane to pub to makeshift shelter easy to follow. Kelly Devine's choreography keeps the movement lively without turning this modest show into a spectacular.

"Come From Away" reminded me a bit of "The Women of Lockerbie," Deborah Brevoort's drama about another instance of international love and generosity countering in a small yet meaningful way an act of terrorist barbarity. Any artistic qualms I might have had with these works were eclipsed by a feeling of gratitude — gratitude for the healing power of good deeds and gratitude that those who do them without any expectation of reward are finally getting their due.

Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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'Come From Away'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 12.

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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