Typically, a musical about something as tragic as 9/11 would not only be disrespectful, but downright unwatchable. “Come From Away” at the National Theatre in Washington DC is anything but.
Based on true events, “Come From Away” tells the story of 38 planes and almost 7,000 stranded passengers that were forced to land in Gander, a small town in Newfoundland, Canada, after the Federal Aviation Administration shut down the United States airspace in the aftermath of 9/11. While the musical is based on real people and the events that transpired in the days following the attack, it is so much more than a history lesson.
At its core, “Come From Away” is a masterclass in human decency. While the plot is centered on a tragic event that rattled the world, the musical manages to gracefully break it down into digestible kindness and relatable people, putting faces and names to a mass tragedy that may otherwise have been forgotten.
With only hours to prepare, Gander and its surrounding towns took in thousands of what they called “Come From Aways,” offering them food, clothes, and a place to stay. But with only 12 actors taking on multiple roles, clarity is key in this fast-paced production. Thankfully, the cast did this with ease, effectively swapping out a hat or jacket to bring hundreds of people to the stage. Book, music, and lyric writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein prove their brilliance more and more with each passing musical number, with individual characters injecting a personal story or anecdote to add an element of emotion to already cathartic full company numbers.
But the jaunty, upbeat tempo of “28 Hours/Wherever We Are” stands out as a defining moment of the production. As each character shares their experience, intertwining plots come together to create a rich and layered story full of fear, hope, kindness, and love. But even among the crowd, Julie Johnson stands out as the kindhearted Beulah with snappy one-liners and a Betty White kind of delivery as she spearheads the efforts to gather supplies and coordinate crisis relief efforts.
Marika Aubrey is the other standout as pilot Beverly Bass/Annette and others. Her number “Me and the Sky” is one of the only solo numbers in the show and she does not disappoint, yet still manages to put her own spin on this dynamic ballad full of hope, promise, and heartbreak. This is one of the only big belt numbers in the show, and Aubrey’s tear-jerking voice fills the room with ease.
From start to finish, director Christopher Ashley’s production is utter perfection. With a script that gracefully tackles serious subjects while still being light on its feet, “Come From Away” may just be one of the most important and profound pieces of art in theater history. With a simple set from designer Beowulf Boritt, it doesn’t need gimmicks or flashy sets to both uplift and break your heart into a thousand pieces all at once.
“Come From Away” runs at the National Theatre in Washington DC through April 17. Tickets can be purchased here. Be advised the production contains language that may not be suitable for young audiences. The production runs 100 minutes without intermission.
All photo credit to Matthew Murphy.