Dismiss all thoughts of Dwayne Johnson or Alcatraz the next time you hear someone say, “Welcome to The Rock!” Instead, rush over to the city of Gander in Newfoundland, currently transplanted to the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre, and become an Islander at the joyous, humanity-affirming musical “Come From Away.”
The married team of David Hein and Irene Sankoff have written a unicorn of a hit musical out of the unlikely circumstance of the closing of U.S. airspace after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More amazingly, they have taken one of the darkest moments of modern history and inverted it into a shining, exuberant, and relentlessly entertaining and instructive example of our highest possible selves as a species.
The “come from aways,” as the Canadians call the passengers of over three dozen temporarily stranded commercial jets, are never the other. They are not feared. They are welcomed, even when barriers of language, religion and culture might dictate differently. The rare times when an -ism appears, it is external to the residents.
Having the size of their tight-knit town double overnight with a global population is never someone else’s problem. It is the community’s shared challenge to solve. One islander communicates with an African man by finding numbered scripture verses in the visitor’s non-English bible to convey context and comfort. One by one, each of the Gander residents works toward a uniquely pragmatic solution from caring for rare animals to storing donated food for 7,000 people.
None of the preceding should imply that “Come From Away” is just a nice, emotionally-manipulative feel-good parable about Samaritans from the North. Quite the opposite. It is a raucous, rousing, occasionally bawdy, frequently audacious two hours of musical theater gold-dotted with politics, romance, feminism, equality, and some really (intentionally) bad jokes.
The ensemble of 12 doubles and triples on recurring characters with wildly varied accents in the blink of an eye. They never miss a beat, and nothing feels token or forced thanks to a taut script built from days of interviews with the original participants and the cinematically fluid staging and directing by Kelly Devine and Christopher Ashley.
It’s a fair question to wonder how a story like this might sing, but the score, also by Sankoff and Hein, delivers pearl after pearl. From the first beat of the opening you are swept up in individual songs and vigorous ensemble productions that are alternately haunting, wry, exciting, and passionate, all perfectly supported by a stellar eight-piece onstage band.
A recurring theme of the evening is waiting. Don’t wait. Come from away and say, “I am an Islander.” You’ll be glad you did.
Come From Away
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 3
Tickets: $56 to $256