If I need an ugly cry about 9/11, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” usually does the trick. Mostly, though, I avoid all artistic responses to the terror attacks, as a matter of self-defense. It’s far gentler to watch “Man On Wire,” the fanciful film about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the towers, than to approach the topic head on.
“Come From Away,” a dignified, often funny new musical opening tonight, evokes for me many of the same feelings as the Petit documentary: If “Man On Wire” lets us safely remember the towers with the buffer of decades, then “Come From Away” does the same, with the buffer of geography.
“Come From Away” is set 1,500 miles from Ground Zero, in Gander, Newfoundland, where “the plane people,” in this story’s parlance, were forced to cut short their journeys after the FAA shut down U.S. air space in the hours after the attacks.
Some 38 international flights with 6,500 people on board (also: cats, dogs and a pregnant chimp) spent hours on the overwhelmed tarmac of the local airport, while townspeople worked through a startling logistics crisis involving issues such as, though not limited to: meals, diapers, beds, pet food, translators and transportation.
The sudden arrivals doubled the town’s population. The planes, and the people, would remain grounded for 5 days.
While distinctly an ensemble piece, with each actor in multiple roles, the focus is never far from Jenn Colella’s Beverly, a pilot based on Beverley Bass, who was, as the Dallas Morning News observed in a 2011 profile, the first woman to make captain at American Airlines. Bass was grounded in Gander that day, like so many others.
Colella’s melodic solo, “Me and the Sky,” is a high point in a show where the songs are consistently interesting. “Welcome to the Rock,” the strong opening number, is kicked off with the fast rhythm of an Irish bodhrán and does a swell job establishing a specific location: “The farthest place you’ll get from Disneyland.”
Some of the characters are real; others are recognized to be composite sketches of the people whom writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein met during a 10th anniversary reunion in Newfoundland. Inevitably, many of the portrayals feel like stock characters—the blustery mayor, etc.—but the acting is excellent all around.
Among the “Come From Aways,” Q. Smith is memorable as the mother of a New York City firefighter, leaving messages for her son from borrowed cell phones until his voicemail is filled up. Astrid Van Wieren has warmth as Beulah, a community organizer who comforts her.
Other travelers include a gay couple, Kevin and Kevin (Chad Kimball, of “Memphis,” and Caesar Samayoa); and Nick (Lee Macdougall), an English oil engineer who falls for Diane (Sharon Wheatley), a Texas divorcee.
Rodney Hicks is particularly good as a jaded New Yorker (and African-American) who is directed by the (white) mayor of a nearby community to go into people’s backyards and “take their grills,” so the stranded travelers can have a cookout.
The well-executed scene sets up serious warm-fuzzies for Canada, as does, in truth, the entire 90-minute, intermissionless production. At the same time, we observe the genesis of an issue stirring us to this day, when a Muslim passenger (Samayoa, again) is singled out for a strip search before his flight is allowed to leave Gander.
There was discipline used here. There’s no footage of burning towers, crashing planes or falling bodies. “Come From Away” manages to find a spiritual angle to a horrific story, depicting the goodness in humanity while still allowing us room for the feelings of loneliness and fear that will always be connected to that time.
“Come From Away,” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Tickets, on sale through Dec. 30, $47-$157. Call 212-239-6200
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn