I think it would be safe to say that most of us remember where we were the moment we heard a plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Centre…if not, we certainly did when a second struck 15 minutes later. That evening, (Australian time) It was as if the world stopped. Scenes of devastation, the stream of fear filled faces crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and dust caked first responders are images that have become familiar with one of the most significant events in modern history. Out of the devastation came stories of agonising loss, stories of remarkable heroism, stories of luck, hope and generosity. And it’s from these stories that Come from Away was born. 

Following the immediate attacks, US airspace is temporarily closed, resulting in the diversion of all flights. In Newfoundland, Canada, the tiny town of Gander and its even smaller airport are thrown into the midst of the ensuing chaos. With a population of just 8,000, Gander not only welcomes, but for 5 days, manages to accommodate, feed and entertain 7,000 displaced passengers and crew from some 38 flights – a feat that nearly doubles their population within a few hours – all during a local bus strike.

In 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Canadian librettist / composer-lyricist duo Irene Sankhoff and David Hein spent a month in Gander listening to the tales of the locals and returning ‘Come from Aways’ (Newfoundlander term for ‘visitor from beyond the island’). With some 16,000 remarkable stories in hand and a want to share as many as possible, they manage to create one of the most rousing and poignant shows to ever hit a theatrical stage. 

What makes this musical soar is its book packed with beautifully developed characters. There is never a moment of doubt to its authenticity and is ably supported by an equally clever, original and rollicking score expertly manoueivered by Musical Director Luke Hunter and the small but extraordinarily skilful band. 

With Christopher Ashley’s acute direction and intelligent staging, this high energy 100 minute no interval production, naturally ticks along without feeling laboured. Ashley’s eye for detail is wonderfully subtle – transitions between scenes and characters flow effortlessly without a hint of hesitation – it is beautifully crafted theatre.

Set designer Beowolf Boritt captures the Newfoundlander landscape, framing the action with red wood trees and an ark like backdrop cleverly doubling as an airliner hold. Transitional scene changes from local tavern, town hall, church to airplane interior are swiftly achieved by simple chair choreography. The staging design blends well with Howell Binkley’s atmospheric lighting and Toni-Lesley Jame’s uncomplicated costumes. Gareth Owens’ outstanding sound is some of the best I have heard on a main stage – every word clearly audible.

This is text book ensemble theatre. The twelve actors play Gander locals to ‘plane people’ – with ease and a great deal of heart. Transitions between characters are particularly strong. The stories, told with warmth, humour and vibrancy, make the audience fall all the more in love with this thrown together bunch of individuals. 

The Newfoundlanders led by Town Mayor Claude, wonderfully played by theatre stalwart Richard Piper, provide just the right dose of small town eccentricity to ring true. Kellie Rhodes, local vet Bonnie, steadfast on rescuing animals from airplane holds, packs a pocket rocket punch while Emma Powell’s straight talking school teacher, Beulah, and local cop Oz (Simon Maiden) are a comedic treat to watch. 

Traumatic and significant events cause change and Come From Away is the story of change for the community and the plane people. Of the displaced we have a coming together for the delightful Katrina Retallick (Diane) and Nathan Carter (Nick) – their duet Stop the World highlights that good can come from something so incredibly tragic. We see a life change forever in Hannah (Sharriese Hamilton) a mother desperately awaiting news of her firefighter son in the heartbreakingly poignant I am Here. We witness a new-found inner strength as American Airlines first female commercial pilot Beverly, (Zoe Gertz) shines in the soaring ballad Me and the Sky. 

We witness relationships change as the two Kevins (Nicholas Brown and Douglas Hansell), now find themselves on differing paths. Scepticism moves to trust for New Yorker Bob (Kolby Kindle) who learns to drink whisky and accept rural hospitality and we see the power of “the new fear” in flight attendant Janice (Sarah Morrison) who now unconsciously profiles passengers post 9/11. We also see Ali the Egyptian muslim (Nicholas Brown) who in the prism of the world view will inevitably be changed forever.

Come from Away is a musical with heart, as the New York Times wrote about the events “Unexpected Guests,Warm Hearts In The Frozen North”. The Gander community woke up one morning to another day of rural routine, and were changed forever by a circumstance beyond a collective imagination. This musical sings its way through these five remarkable days of charity, humour, grief, disbelief and humanity and throws light on all the good that can be born from tragedy……… extraordinary theatre based on an ordinary town in an extraordinary time.

Picture credits: Jeff Busby