They may not be the forgotten heroes of the 9/11 tragedy, but the townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland who welcomed and cared for the passengers of 38 jetliners that were diverted to their small town after U.S. airspace was closed off deserve greater presence in our collective memory. La Jolla Playhouse, in co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, has taken up this cause with an intelligent and frequently stirring world-premiere musical called Come From Away. The one-act ensemble piece written by spouses Irene Sankoff and David Hein and directed by Christopher Ashley also auspiciously launches the Playhouse’s 2015-16 season of entirely new works.
Come From Away takes a little time to introduce the various characters, among them Gander citizens and airline passengers, with a cast of 12 playing multiple roles. Once the introductions are established, however, the musical moves swiftly as friendships are forged, kindnesses are bestowed, and painful truths about lives and a world forever changed are confronted. Ashley, artistic director of the Playhouse, achieves a masterful synergy of personalities and sub-stories on stage, while a rollicking eight-person band in the wings evokes the spirit of Gander and provides the backdrop for more than a dozen songs that recount the dramatic days when a burg of less than 10,000 nearly doubled in population.
The Come From Away score is not composed of overwrought anthems or iTunes-ready hits, but rather unembellished, expository songs that bring us closer to the characters and their individual swirling emotions. Broadway fixture Jenn Colella is Beverly Bass, the first female captain for a major airline, while Joel Hatch (from Billy Elliot on Broadway) portrays the mayor of Gander. The cast also includes performers well-known to San Diego like Geno Carr and Allison Spratt Pearce.
Thematically, Come From Away does not resort to flag-waving or double-park itself in melancholy. It’s an upbeat 100 minutes that testifies to all the good that men and women can do for each other, not only in general but at the worst possible time: in the wake of genuine evil.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.