Television is consumed this week with 9/11 retrospectives whose geographic focus, understandably, is on the places where the terrorist attacks took place: New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pa.
“Come From Away,” however, tells the story of what was happening on that terrible day more than 1,000 miles north of New York, in Gander, Newfoundland. In the process, it tells a larger story about the generosity of spirit and capacity for connection we humans can summon in a time of crisis.
When the shutdown of US airspace forced 38 planes to be rerouted to Gander, the town’s citizens mobilized to provide food, shelter, and comradeship to 7,000 shaken passengers. That episode was molded into the musical “Come From Away,” which is probably the best-known work of theater created in direct response to 9/11. Starting Friday, a filmed version of live performances of “Come From Away” will be available for streaming on Apple TV+.
Just as when I saw it on Broadway, in 2017, and in a touring production in Boston two years ago, I found myself wishing that the Canadian husband-and-wife creative team David Hein and Irene Sankoff had been able to resist the impulse to sprinkle saccharin on an already-compelling tale.
But just as at those two previous stage performances, I found myself swept along by the barreling momentum of “Come From Away” — starting with its dynamic opening number, “Welcome to the Rock” — and generally surrendering to its heart-on-the-sleeve, dare-to-be-corny charm, buoyancy, and a quality that can only be called genuineness.
That quality is perhaps even more pronounced in the filmed version because the musical’s bare-bones aesthetic, with a set consisting of a bunch of chairs and a couple of tables, contrasts so markedly with the kind of overproduced slickness that often prevails onscreen.
It also helps a lot that the “Come From Away” cast is populated with actors who are, for the most part, blessedly average-looking. All play more than one role, and very few of them would be candidates for a revival of “A Chorus Line,” but they do plausibly register as the fearful and fretful air travelers and as the practical-minded residents of Gander (though some overdo the regional accents — Bostonians know how that feels).
The “plane people” are strangers in a strange land, but not for long. Watching a sense of community quickly evolve between the locals and the “come from aways,” a micro-version of the too-brief solidarity felt in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, you may feel a pang at the loss of that unity, underscored so cruelly by the divisions over COVID-19.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, several performances were shot in May at New York’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, then edited into a final version. The audience for the last day of filming included 9/11 survivors, family members, and first responders.
The narration of the story in “Come From Away” is a group effort, enlivened by Kelly Devine’s stomping and swirling choreography. The cast is in constant movement across the stage, each taking a turn rattling off bursts of dialogue and exposition. That rapid alternation of scenes helps to keep things from getting too soggy, and close-ups work to differentiate characters within the large ensemble more precisely than stage productions can.
Original cast member Jenn Colella helps to anchor “Come From Away” as Beverley Bass, the first female captain at American Airlines. Colella delivers a piercing performance of “Me and the Sky,” in which Beverley’s lifetime love for flying is shadowed by the devastating news of a terrorist attack in which “the one thing I loved more than anything was used as the bomb.”
Other characters who register vividly include Hannah (Q. Smith), a woman desperate for word of her son, a Manhattan firefighter; Ali (Caesar Samayoa), an Egyptian chef who is treated with anti-Muslim hostility by several passengers; a gay couple, both named Kevin (Samayoa again, with Tony LePage), whose relationship begins to splinter under the strain; and British oil engineer Nick (Jim Walton) and Texas divorcee Diane (Sharon Wheatley), a middle-aged duo slowly drawn to each other. De’Lon Grant, a onetime mainstay of Boston theater, is on hand as Bob, whose jaundiced worldview is put to the test by the relentless goodwill and hospitality of the Ganderites.
Yours might be, too. All drama asks you to suspend disbelief, but “Come From Away” asks you also to suspend cynicism, aiming to move and uplift you. It’s not a bad bargain, and “Come From Away” holds up its end.
COME FROM AWAY
Directed by Christopher Ashley. Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Starring Jenn Colella, De’Lon Grant, Q. Smith, Caesar Samayoa, Tony LePage, Jim Walton, Sharon Wheatley. Streaming on Apple TV+. 107 minutes. TV-14 (brief language).