Producers: Jennifer Todd, Bill Condon, Nick Meyer and Mark Gordon Director: Christopher Ashley Screenplay: Irene Sankoff and David Hein Cast: Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, De’Lon Grant, Joel Hatch, Tony LePage, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Emily Walton, Jim Walton, Sharon Wheatley and Paul Whitty Distributor: Apple+
Though it was originally intended that this musical, which went through several years of tryouts before opening on Broadway in 2017, would be the basis of a full-scale screen adaptation, the COVID pandemic brought a change of plan, resulting in a “live capture” of the New York production after the cast reassembled for performances in April-May, 2021. So like the Disney film of “Hamilton” from last year, “Come From Away” is less cinematic reworking than stage documentation, and as such theatre buffs should especially appreciate it.
Not that its appeal will be limited to them. The piece succeeds at what might seem a virtually impossible task—making a crowd-pleaser out of unutterably tragic material, the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s a goal that actually extends back, in a strange way, to Paul Greengrass’ 2006 “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” of the same year, both of which emphasized the heroism with which people reacted to the events, and extends through Michael Keaton’s recent “Worth,” about the effort to assist survivors and their relatives.
But “Come From Away” is a different thing—a feel-good tale about how passengers on nearly forty aircraft kept from U.S. airspace in the aftermath of the attacks found refuge and consolation in Gander, Newfoundland, where the flights were diverted. Blessed with an extraordinarily large airfield—a relic of the days when layovers were required of transatlantic flights—the folks of the rocky island marshal everything they have—material goods as well as inexhaustible energy—to offer a heartfelt welcome to nearly seven thousand people of numerous nationalities, ethnicities and religions understandably stressed out by a situation in which they don’t fully comprehend what’s happening and have difficulty contacting their loved ones.
The ensemble cast—a dozen—all assume multiple roles to play the locals and the newcomers. The staging is minimalist—chairs that are moved around to suggest different locations (an airplane cabin, a bus, the interior of an evacuation center, a pub), with simple backdrops and bits of added furniture or trees occasionally added. And the small band is onstage as well.
The show balances disparate emotional elements skillfully. There are, of course, moments that focus directly on the pain of the time, particularly the thread about a passenger who’s repeatedly unable to get through to her son, a fireman, as the realization grows that he is probably among those lost in the conflagration. And amid the general air of unity in attitude and purpose despite national and linguistic differences, there is an obvious exception in the story of a Muslim man who is the focus of suspicion among his fellow passengers.
Generally, however, the tone is more upbeat, with humor and the infectious Irish-themed score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein—more exuberant than memorable—dominating the mood. A recurrent thread about a local woman concerned about the animals on the planes—including some monkeys—has a serious side, but is mostly played for laughs. A local’s long recitation of the many stages of travel it would take to get from Gander back to the States via boat and car rather than by air is milked as long as possible. And the experience of a gay couple whose uneasiness among the locals is upended as they’re approached in a bar is about as calculated an appeal to the notion that people are alike all over as one can imagine.
There’s even romance as two passengers find themselves growing closer as the hours grow into days.
As directed by Christopher Ashley, all this, and a great deal more, is played with earnestness and energy by the accomplished cast, who keep the material fresh despite being veterans of the show returning to it after a long hiatus. Overseeing the filming was Tobias A. Schliessler, whose agile camera moves keep the result from feeling static or dull. The enthusiasm of the audience is an important ingredient, too.
“Come From Away” doesn’t plumb the depths of the post-9/11 experience, but its blend of poignancy and feel-good uplift, appealing to both the heart and the funnybone, is, from a purely theatrical perspective, a winning formula that comes across nicely in this film of the New York production.