Part of the ensemble, in the “screech-in” scene from Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of “Come From Away,” which runs through Dec. 13. Photo by Chris Bennion
Part of the ensemble, in the “screech-in” scene from Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of “Come From Away,” which runs through Dec. 13. Photo by Chris Bennion

“Come From Away” is the first musical to play on the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s main stage in 15 years, and you shouldn’t miss it.

Not because it’s the greatest musical ever, but because it abounds with heart, humor and humanity — a welcome diversion in the current climate of gun violence, terrorism and racism.

A co-production with La Jolla Playhouse, “Come From Away” is based on inspiring, true events that occurred during the 9/11 tragedy.

While the world was consumed with horror, a life-affirming story got lost in the deluge of media coverage: 9/11 tore people apart, but in a tiny town in Newfoundland, Canada, it brought an unlikely group of strangers together. 

The remote town of Gander (population 9,000) welcomed 7,000 airline passengers from 38 planes. They had been diverted when the United States closed its air space after the attacks, and Gander’s aging airport, a World War II staging point, was in the right location. 

Those 7,000 passengers sat on the Gander tarmac for as long as 24 hours before they were allowed to disembark without their luggage, not knowing where they were or why they were there. 

The Gander townsfolk didn’t hesitate: They put their own lives on hold to help these strangers from around the world. Bus drivers suspended their strike and transported the “plane people” to local schools, churches and community centers, occasionally delayed by a moose moseying down the middle of the road. 

Beds were provided. Prescriptions were filled free of charge. Grocery stores opened their doors and said, “Take whatever you need” — toothbrushes, soap, diapers. The unexpected guests were fed and clothed in small-town couture. A call went out for toilet paper.

Five years went into the creation of “Come From Away” (Newfoundland jargon for “outsider”) Canadian duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein researched and interviewed Gander folks and airline passengers to write the book, music and lyrics. 

The characters are based on real people. Actual anecdotes and sound bytes are strung together, juxtaposing friendly, homespun banter and passenger anxiety, often with humor.

Skillfully directed by Christopher Ashley (“Memphis”), the musical possesses a folksy charm, without relying on clichés or gushing sentimentality. A talented 12-actor ensemble doubles as townsfolk and passengers, and 5th Avenue Theatre mainstay Ian Eisendrath leads the lively onstage band. 

If you grew up in or near a small town, you may know a Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren), Gander’s compassionate take-charge matron, or a Claude (Joel Hatch), the affable mayor. And if you’re a frequent flyer, you may recognize the passengers: the techy businessman, the Orthodox Jew and the Texas divorcee, among others. 

Romance blossomed on Gander streets between divorced Diane (Sharon Wheatley) and shy English engineer Nick (Lee MacDougall). Their real-life counterparts, after meeting in Gander, eventually married. 

Others weren’t so lucky: A mother (Q Smith) anxiously waited by the phone, only to discover her firefighter son had perished during the New York City rescue efforts. The Egyptian passenger (Caesar Samayoa) tried to clear up misconceptions about his religion, an African American (Rodney Hicks) panicked when Mayor Claude told him to go through white backyards and collect grills for a massive barbeque. 

In a lighter vein, there was hoedown-style dancing, while cardiologists in matching white coats showed off their Channing Tatum moves. A gay couple was good-naturedly outed, and the collective reaction to Gander’s fish-and-cheese casserole specialty was priceless. Thankfully, Irish whiskey was plentiful.

A favorite moment in the musical introduced the “screech-in,” a tradition that bestows honorary Newfoundlander status. First, take a shot of the local brew: 40-percent rum. Second, kiss a dead fish — usually cod. The divorcee drank the shot but refused to kiss the cod. Instead, she honed in on a passenger (maybe he was a Pisces).

The music is best described as folk-anthem rock. Songs mirror the stage action: “Blankets and Bedding,” “Prayer,” “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” and “Something’s Missing.” Oddly, there’s no title tune. 

There are no starring roles in “Come From Away,” but many of the actors have Broadway credits. The entire ensemble perform most numbers. There’s no big show-stopper, although one makes an attempt: “Me and the Sky,” sung by Jenn Collela, as the female pilot, Capt. Beverly. She has a terrific voice and vocal range, but the lyrics ramble on like a runaway sentence. 

Beowulf Boritt’s simplistic set design consists of a dozen or so mismatched chairs, a couple of tables, a few boxes randomly stacked and a revolving center stage, “Les Miserables”-style. Chairs are maneuvered into different formations to represent locations, illuminated by Howard Binkley’s superb lighting design. 

An enthusiastic Seattle Repertory opening-night audience gave the production a standing ovation, cheering the performers through four curtain calls. However, if “Come From Away” has Broadway aspirations — and why wouldn’t it — the show’s beginning, for instance, needs tweaking before it lands on the “Great White Way.” 

Although the score is heartwarming, you won’t leave humming any tunes. But you will have new hope for humanity. Gander folks refused monetary compensation: “You would have done the same for us.” they said. 

In the Thanksgiving spirit, a small Canadian town showed the world what true giving is all about. 

“Come From Away” runs through Dec. 13 at Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Bagley Wright theater (155 Mercer St.). For tickets or more information, call (206) 443-2222 or go online to