Any qualms about the propriety or taste of a “9/11 musical” prove unfounded in the case of “Come From Away,” the superb new show premiering at La Jolla Playhouse. Out of the true story of a small Newfoundland community playing host to 38 commercial aircraft after the World Trade Center attacks, Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein have forged a moving, thoroughly entertaining tribute to international amity and the indomitable human spirit. Commercial prospects are bright for this surefire source of laughter and tears.
Once a thriving refueling station for WWII Allied planes, obsolete Gander International Airport gained new life as a crucial emergency stop during the U.S. airspace shutdown in the wake of 9/11. Sleepy, parochial Gander found itself playing Motel 6 to thousands of exhausted, uncomprehending, terrified world travelers.
As Sankoff and Hein’s months of participant interviews revealed, Gander didn’t just leave the light on for its visitors. Beyond food and blankets, it offered unstinting compassion, and guests responded in kind. Differences of language, ethnicity and habit faded away in a firm, week-long mutual embrace. (And one which lasted well past the tenth anniversary of those tragic events, as we discover in an epilogue.)
Clearly, this material poses dangers of falling into cliche, sentimentality or mindless moral uplift. But in only their second attempt at a musical, Sankoff and Hein maintain a hard-edged reality that old pros would envy, staking out a solid through-line from their compiled anecdotes. Characters are types but never stereotypes. Not all behave well or expectedly, and even the happy endings are tempered by the crusty reserve typical of residents of “The Rock,” as Newfoundland dubs itself.
Cheesy sentiment is also sidestepped in the team’s musical score. No flamboyant power ballads here, just an array of muscular folk songs and sensitive character portraits, executed by music supervisor-keyboardist Ian Eisendrath and a sensational combo on a distinctive amalgam of world-music strings, pipes and percussion.
Director Christopher Ashley (“Memphis”), whose forte has always been infusing clever theatricality with palpable emotion, is in his element here. His crackerjack troupe of 12 skillfully shape-shifts among natives, passengers and officials back home, shuffling set designer Beowulf Boritt’s furniture pieces into a range of evocative public and private spaces hauntingly delineated by Howell Binkley’s lighting effects.
Each actor pulls full ensemble weight, though standouts are Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley as spontaneous lovers, and Caesar Samayoa’s Egyptian passenger confronting suspicion and fear. Petrina Bromley shines as first responder to the animals kept in cargo holds, while Jenn Colella’s Beverley, pioneering female pilot, describes in unforgettable song how it feels when “the one thing I loved more than anything/Was used as the bomb.”
Those who lived through 9/11 will know what Sankoff and Hein mean in their finale “Something’s Missing”: As awful as it was, for a while there strangers behaved like family, and hands ordinarily clenched into fists opened wide. Just as suddenly, it all vanished. “Come From Away” is affecting enough in celebrating that moment, but even more so in advancing the possibility of humanity’s finding its way to such harmony again. And next time, perhaps, unprompted by disaster.