Welcome to the Rock – as locals called Newfoundland – and to an extraordinary story of open-hearted generosity in the wake of a dreadful act of terror, celebrated in the uplifting, inspiring, joyous musical Come From Away. What’s more, by the end of the show you will have sampled a real taste of life in the remote island. Swept up in the show, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking (perhaps sentimentally) that I’d love to visit the town of Gander one day.

The cast of Come From Away. Photograph © Jeff Busby

From the opening number by the show’s writers, Canadian husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff (who co-wrote the book, music and lyrics), we are taken into the heart of the Gander community, many of whom came together with people from nearby villages to welcome almost 7000 passengers stranded there for five days when American airspace was closed following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

As planes bound for New York were directed elsewhere, 38 were sent to Gander, nearly doubling the local population overnight. Hein and Sankoff first became aware of this a decade later when they were commissioned to write a musical and travelled to Gander for the 10th anniversary celebrations. They spent weeks there, talking to Newfoundlanders and plane people, and based the musical on the stories they were told.

As we see in the musical, as plane after plane landed, the locals quickly rallied, turning the school into a welcome centre for the passengers, who came from all around the world. The school bus drivers were on strike at time, but they put the dispute aside until the passengers left and began ferrying the anxious plane people from the airport. The Newfoundlanders made sandwiches, organised bedding, and set up phones and computers, while Bonnie Harris from the local animal centre discovered 19 forgotten animals in the cargo holds.

As the days passed, they invited the ‘come from awayers’ to the pub and into their homes. Lifetime friendships were forged, romance blossomed and a relationship ended. As the world changed post 9/11, so did life for everyone involved in those heightened days in Gander.

It’s an incredible story. Hein and Sankoff don’t shirk the frustrations, anger and conflict that naturally erupted. They show the suspicions surrounding a Muslim character called Ali (a composite of several real people), but they focus primarily on the compassion and kindness that held sway, and through their beautifully structured, heartfelt show have charmed audiences wherever it has played – including Toronto, Broadway where it opened in 2017, and in London’s West End.

The show has now arrived in Melbourne, produced by a huge team led by Junkyard Dog Productions and Rodney Rigby, and the musical proves to be a refreshingly different and original show.

The cast of Come From Away. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Prior to writing Come From Away, Hein and Sankoff had only written one small-scale independent musical, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based on Hein’s mother. With Come From Away they have written a musical that plays by its own rules. The storytelling is interwoven through the songs. Each number is a vital part of the narration, while the dialogue is underscored so the music is always a driving force.

The show has been written, and then directed so that the songs are intricate to the action and never become stand-alone moments, as iconic musical theatre numbers traditionally do. Rarely do the songs end with an invitation for applause. Even the show’s big solo number, Me and the Sky, sung by Beverly Bass (the first female pilot to fly for American Airlines) is staged without the expected, final big note. Instead, the action moves on immediately so that there is no room for applause; a technique which keeps us intensely involved in the storytelling.

Despite the heartache and trauma among the passengers, as they wait to ring home and discover if others they know are safe, which Hein and Sankoff gently portray, there is plenty of lovely humour from the “screeching” session which involves kissing a dead cod (a Newfoundland tradition) to glorious deadpan comments like: “Thank you for coming to Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?”

The infectious music is folk-rock with a Celtic lilt, played by an on-stage band of eight on instruments such as Irish flute, mandolin, whistles, fiddle and Bodhrán among others. It’s a toe-tapping score, with movement by Kelly Devine that suits it perfectly. As for the routine she creates for a group of toilet-cleaning cardiologists, it’s a total hoot!

Staged on a simple wooden set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, Christopher Ashley’s direction is supple and swift, making inventive use of chairs and a couple of tables to create a plane, a bar, a woodland outlook and everywhere else that the action goes. The cast move the chairs quickly into place, with Kelly Devine’s movement creating a fast, fluid rhythm as scenes slide seamlessly from one to another.

Zoe Gertz as Beverley Bass. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The cast of 12 play four times as many roles, portraying both Newfoundlanders and plane people with just the addition of a jacket or hat, and a change of accent to differentiate them. It’s all that’s needed. The actors do the rest and they are all perfect, creating a range of distinctive characters, and working together as a tight-knit team.

Standouts include Richard Piper who anchors the show as the big-hearted mayor Claude Elliott, Emma Powell as Beulah, who organises much of the school set-up, Katrina Retallick as a Texan passenger called Diane, who becomes close to a diffident English oil executive called Nick, nicely played by Nathan Carter. Zoe Gertz has great authority as Beverley Bass, and sings her song with touching passion, while New York Kolby Kindle is deliciously funny as Bob and a dreamy pilot among other roles. But the entire cast, which also includes Nicholas Brown, Sharriese Hamilton, Douglas Hansell, Simon Maiden. Sarah Morrison and Kellie Rode, is superb.

The audience rose as one at the end of the show, and then cheered even more as many of the real people on which the show is based, came on stage and stood next to the actors who had played them. A magical moment.

Come From Away is a moving tribute to the power of community, at a time when kindness and compassion often seem to be in short supply. Written and performed with incredible heart, it is a beautiful, inspiring production.

Come From Away is at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until March 6, 2020