Telling an affirmative, upbeat story about human goodness can be tricky. Apart from the fact that it’s seldom as interesting as a story about human badness, the temptation toward sentimentality is always there, beckoning.
Resisting that temptation was clearly not a priority for “Come From Away’’ creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein or director Christopher Ashley.
Their Tony-nominated musical, which has arrived at the Citizens Bank Opera House, abounds in “Awww . . .’’ moments and scenes that build to tidy resolutions. More in-depth characterizations and more conflict would have added complexity, grit, and depth to a show that is governed by the spirit of relentless uplift.
Yet it’s hard not to be swept up in the overall experience of “Come From Away,’’ a show inspired by the true-life story of a small Canadian town’s extraordinary embrace of nearly 7,000 airline passengers who were stranded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Essentially, “Come From Away’’ is a story of communal hospitality, of welcoming in the stranger, of ordinary people giving of themselves unstintingly in a moment of need. All of that is heartening to contemplate — especially today, when our air is polluted by the incessant braying of the mean-spirited — but it’s not necessarily the stuff of gripping drama.
Yet Sankoff and Hein give “Come From Away’’ a propulsive, forward-moving energy and urgency, partly via the simple device of deploying the 12-member cast as rotating narrators who each tell a small part of the tale before swiftly passing it on to the next, like baseball infielders whipping the ball around the horn.
The catchy, folk-pop-Celtic-flavored score further fleshes out the storytelling, largely with ensemble numbers that create opportunities for soaring choruses by a cast that proves eminently capable of delivering the emotional goods, starting with the show’s opener, the driving, scene-setting “Welcome to the Rock.’’ (Prominently featuring the fiddle, accordion, Uilleann pipes, whistles, and mandolins, among other instruments, the score is dynamically performed by an eight-piece band that includes music director Cameron Moncur.)
At least as depicted in “Come From Away,’’ the folksy denizens of Gander, Newfoundland, might have stepped out of Grover’s Corners. (Thornton Wilder, who knew a thing or two about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, would approve of “Come From Away’s’’ blend of solemnity, humor, and portraits of resiliency.) Gander’s citizens are stopped cold on 9/11 by the news from New York, but they don’t stand still for long. After airspace closures forced 38 planes to land in Gander, the town’s inhabitants rose to the occasion by providing food, supplies, and shelter to the “plane people.’’
In “Come From Away,’’ they mobilize in a disarmingly practical, matter-of-fact way to assist the grounded passengers. As the days go on, the locals discover commonalities and make connections with the new arrivals who have “come from away.’’ Meanwhile, within the ranks of the anxious, restless, and fearful passengers, relationships form or fray. A gay couple, both named Kevin, find themselves increasingly at odds as each responds differently to their circumstances — one is entranced by the folkways of Gander, the other sardonically describes the town as a place “where they eat rainbows for breakfast.’’ A British engineer and a woman traveling back home to Texas fall in love, step by tentative step.
To its credit, “Come From Away’’ makes room within its overall picture of warmth and solidarity to also depict some of the ugliness that surfaced after that terrible day. A Muslim passenger encounters hostility from a couple of other travelers, one of whom snarls at him, in grimly familiar words: “Go back where you came from.’’
Though it’s largely an ensemble piece in which each cast member shoulders multiple roles to portray a host of townspeople and passengers, some performers in “Come From Away’’ do stand out. Chief among them is Marika Aubrey, who projects a mixture of command and empathy as Beverley, a pioneering airline pilot. Aubrey delivers a powerful rendition of “Me and the Sky,’’ when Beverley retraces her passion for and joy in flying — culminating in that chilling moment when she learns there’s been “a terrorist action’’ and that “the one thing I loved more than anything was used as the bomb.’’
Other cast standouts include James Earl Jones II as Bob, a New Yorker undergoing a severe case of culture shock (Jones amusingly mines Bob’s astonishment at the trustfulness and generosity of Ganderites when he is sent on a mission to collect barbecue grills from backyards), and Julie Johnson as Beulah, a Gander teacher who bonds with a passenger whose son, like Beulah’s, is a firefighter. (That woman’s son is a New York fireman, and, ominously, he is missing.)
Throughout “Come From Away,’’ the musical staging (by Kelly Devine) is efficient but expressive. Whether stomping in place or striding across the stage, the cast is in constant, vigorous motion. It feels authentic to who the townspeople and the passengers are, to the upheaval they’re going through, and to their need, in the face of a nightmare, to do something.
COME FROM AWAY
Book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, through Nov. 17. Tickets start at $44.50. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.