Review: Rousing Come From Away welcomes us all to the Rock

Come From Away is in Ottawa until Sept. 8. Photo Matthew Murphy

Everyone born before Sept. 11, 2001 knows where they were when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

In my case I was driving to my job as the editor of the then Canwest National Bureau when I got a call out of the clear blue sky from a reporter telling me a plane had slammed into the first tower and asking what should he do?

Indeed, what does anybody do in such a moment?

In Gander, Newfoundland, on that horrific day, people did something real, something genuine and something decent. After the terror attacks, the U.S. government closed American air space and that meant some 200 planes had to find another place to land.

Gander International Airport took in 38 of those planes.

Having been served lemons, the Newfoundlanders welcomed 7,000 strangers into their homes and made lemonade and sandwiches and friendships that last to this day and continue to make all Canadians proud. It is a life lesson for our current fractious times.

That small town generosity has been captured so well in the moving, funny, wistful and ultimately charming musical Come From Away that has actually been able to bottle decency and not make it saccharine. The show roared into town Tuesday night to begin a sold out three-week run.

There is something that is fresh and important about Come From Away. To me this is based on the fact that it is so authentic.

The secret is that the writers — David Hein and Irene Sankoff — are not bound by the conventions of musical theatre. And that they did their homework.

The script is based on hours of interviews with the principals of the story and the real words and sentiments of Oz and Claude and Beulah and Beverley and Hannah and Diane all ring so true.

The performance is also built, not on the traditions of Broadway, but on the DIY nature of the Fringe festivals that are now everywhere across North America. The best of Fringe productions are simple, inventive and true to themselves. Come From Away, even though it has been given the Broadway treatment, remains very true to its theatrical roots. What the cast does with a set of kitchen chairs is a marvel.

Because of the nature of this complicated story of many moving parts, the company of performers has to handle many different characters — from the town policeman who hands out warnings saying Slow The F Down to the humane society worker who worries about the animals on the planes to all the Come From Aways — all the while moving rapid-fire through the kitchen party music that accompanies the entire 90 minute show (no intermission). Their work is seamless and they roll through humour, exasperation, racism, anger and even romance to great effect.

Finally the singing and the live performance sets a wonderful tone. The fiddle and the drum and the tin whistle let you know immediately this is Newfoundland and with the opening song Welcome to the Rock, you know you want to be an Islander too.

Come From Away continues at the National Arts Centre until Sept. 8 For more information, please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.