When it comes to Come From Away — the made-in-Canada hit musical currently running on Broadway, and which is now making its Canadian regional theatre premiere at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre en route to Toronto — there's really only one question that matters.
Does it live up to the hype?
This is, after all, a musical that's currently packing in audiences on Broadway, picked up a Tony Award, and earned rave reviews — including endorsements from a certain Canadian prime minister and the creator of what's probably fairly described as the hottest musical in the world right now.
Oh, and it also long ago sold every single ticket to its Royal MTC run.
So — is it that good?
Unfortunately for every Winnipegger who scrambled, and failed, to get tickets — yes. Yes it is.
In their musical — presented here with a new Canadian cast in a co-production from Toronto's Mirvish productions and Junkyard Dog Productions, the original company behind the hit — Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein tell the now-familiar story of the reaction of the people of Gander, N.L., after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.
Gander — population 9,000 — took in thousands of passengers on Sept. 11, 2001, after their planes were diverted to the "small place on a rock in the middle of the ocean."
With the population of the town nearly doubled in a matter of hours, Gander residents sprung into action to help their guests, providing food, clothing, shelter and comfort during those first uncertain days in a post-9/11 world.
Sankoff and Hein have said — often — that this is not a 9/11 musical, but a 9/12 musical. It focuses less on the horror of the event — the word "terrorist" is used only once in the show — and more on the best of how people reacted to it.
We meet a series of characters, based on actual people and played here by an excellent cast of a dozen. There are the locals like the likable mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott (George Masswohl), hyper-organized teacher Beulah Cooper (Lisa Horner) and nervous newbie reporter Janice Mosher (Steffi DiDomenicantonio).
And then there are the stranded travellers, like steel-nerved pilot Beverley Bass (Eliza-Jane Scott), Bob (Kevin Vidal), a New Yorker puzzled by the easygoing nature of Newfoundlanders, and Diane and Nick (Barbara Fulton and James Kall), travellers from Texas and England, respectively, who begin to find comfort for their frayed nerves in each other's company.
And tension is a constant here — it's easy to forget, nearly 20 years on, just how confusing and terrifying those first moments of 9/11 and the days that followed were. But watching the reaction of the characters here to first learning of the attacks, we're transported back to the horror and helplessness of that time.
But this is a ultimately story of how people fought terror with love and helplessness with compassionate action. It's hard to imagine a "feel-good" musical based on 9/11, but Come From Away is nothing if not relentlessly and unabashedly life-affirming.
That isn't to say it shies away from darkness — not everyone's story ends happily ever after, and it does acknowledge the early and insidious rooting of post-9/11 xenophobia. But it seems to almost dare audiences to embrace hope in spite of all this. "Any of us could have died yesterday," one character says on Sept. 12. "It's like we're dared to see the world differently today."
This could all very quickly become maudlin, too, but Sankoff and Hein's deftly written musical only occasionally flirts with that, largely succeeding at grounding us in the reality of the characters' situation and making us genuinely care about them.
Much of its positivity comes, too, from its often surprising, and ample, moments of comedy. Hein and Sankoff are smart enough to cut the tension of the story with plenty of smart laughs — from gags about Timmies and repeated trips to "the Shoppers" that Canadian audiences will laugh knowingly at to Bob's marvellously funny bewilderment at the culture of small-town Newfoundland.
And yes, it's all set to music — catchy, ear-pleasing, Celtic folk-infused numbers that are rarely subtle, but effectively pull the audience in, especially with the rousing opener Welcome to the Rock and the rollicking Screech In. It has its more tender moments, too, like the gentle and achingly sad Prayer and pilot Beverley's anthemic Me and the Sky.
A superb live band under music director Bob Foster backs the talented cast, and get to really show off their stuff with a blistering curtain call number.
Christopher Ashley, who won a Tony for directing the Broadway production, helms this production too, and it's a well-oiled machine. It moves with terrific energy through its 100 minutes (with, mercifully, no intermission to break its momentum).
Hein and Sankoff have pulled off a remarkable feat here — a musical about the aftermath of 9/11 that's funny, heartwarming, genuinely moving and reminds us of the simple, utter decency that exists in the world at its best, in spite of its worst.
Welcome to The Rock indeed — if you can score a ticket.
The Mirvish and Junkyard Dog production of Come From Away runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until Feb. 3. It begins a run at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre on Feb. 13.