Crafting a feel-good musical from the tragic events of 911 requires invention and no small amount of daring.
"Come From Away" has all that, and more.
The production, at Detroit’s' Fisher Theatre through Oct. 13, turns five says in Gander, Newfoundland -- where 38 planes were diverted after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. -- into a near-fable about human compassion and kindness. Clever, poignant and full of heart, expertly balancing gravity and levity throughout its 100 minutes (with no intermission), it shows how the worst of times brought out the best in a small city thrust into another country's crisis, and how it made all concerned better for it.
It's also a wonderful piece of stagecraft, from a book by Canadians Irene Sankoff and David Hein that has plenty of laughs along with tearful gut punches and demands a great deal from a cast that, in this touring company, is more than up to the challenge. It's a marvel to watch the dozen actors each take on multiple characters, gliding from wise-cracking Newfoundland nice to angst-filled stranded passengers, complete with changes in accent, posture and facial countenance within the brisk pace of the script, inhabiting each with depth and wholly believable emotion.
It's almost unfair to single out anyone amidst the ensemble brilliance, but James Earl Jones II (a third cousin of the baritone icon) makes every one of his roles -- including a street-smart New Jersyian, a suave pilot and a fearful African father -- memorable. Marika Aubrey is strong as Beverley Bass, the groundbreaking American Airlines pilot just trying to protect her passengers and her plane and get everybody home, while Harter Clingman shines in roles as disparate as Gander's chief cop Oz Fudge and a stranded rabbi who helps one of the townspeople restore his faith.
Dialogue and song flow in and out of each other throughout the production, adding to an emotional sweep that runs from the scene-setting "Welcome to the Rock" to the industrious "Blankets and Bedding." "Prayer," "On the Edge" and "Me and the Sky" are emotionally devastating statements, while "Screech In" and the party scene at the Legion bar -- where passengers are made honorary citizens of Newfoundland with all the attendant, er, fishy rituals -- is a buoyant celebration with the eight-member onstage band woven into the scene. The sheer stylistic sweep of the music is impressive, but there isn't a note that feels wasted or gratuitous.
"Come From Away's" conclusion is, of course, bracing, mining the bonhomie of fellowship and the return to a new, uncertain world where, as the song says, "Something's Missing" and much has changed in an instant. "Tonight we honor what we lost, but we also commemorate what we found," Gander Mayor Claude Elliott (Kevin Carolan) says at one point, and "Come From Away" finds a way to look at both in entertaining and enlightening fashion.
"Come From Away" runs through Oct. 13 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $39 and up. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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