“Where were you on 9/11?” Almost everyone old enough to remember September 11, 2001 has an answer to that question. And it’s the basis for Come From Away, a musical set in the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers currently playing at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne after a successful run on Broadway.
Specifically, the show follows the passengers of 38 planes that were diverted when the United States airspace was closed. In a matter of hours, the real-life town of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada almost doubled in population to accommodate nearly 7000 emergency arrivals – so-called “come-from-aways” – from nearly 100 countries.
Come From Away softens the horror of the worst terrorist attack in US history, a tragedy that claimed 3000 lives and forever changed American domestic and foreign policy, by focusing on how Gander’s residents rose to the challenge of clothing, housing and feeding thousands of stranded strangers. It’s a heart-warming anecdote amid impossibly grim circumstances.
The cast play multiple roles, switching effortlessly between them with simple accent and costume changes. Nicholas Brown portrays one half of a gay couple from LA who are initially wary of being open about their relationship in case the locals are homophobic (they aren’t) as well as a Muslim passenger who’s treated with suspicion and forced to submit to a degrading strip-search. Islamophobia is touched on, but only briefly before the next foot-stomping number.
The set is similarly no-frills, with a scattering of chairs and tables repeatedly rearranged to represent the interior of planes, buses and diners. Otherwise, much of the staging is left to the imagination. It’s a testament to the talent of the cast and the storytelling power of musical theatre that the show never becomes crowded or confusing.
Musically, the show draws from its subject matter, with Newfoundland-inspired, folksy numbers like “Heave Away” and “Screech In”. “Me and the Sky”, a soaring, mournful song in traditional musical theatre style performed by standout Zoe Gertz, is easily the show’s most memorable number. A shout-out goes to “Welcome to the Rock”, the anthemic opening number that establishes the show’s relentlessly upbeat tone.
Despite its seemingly gloomy premise, Come From Away is a fun romp buoyed by a rollicking soundtrack and a worthy message. Those expecting anything more profound than that will be disappointed, but it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
Come From Away is playing now at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased from comefromaway.com.au/
Written by Seb Starcevic
Photo by Jeff Busby