9/10/2021 COME FROM AWAY Apple + TV
WHAT WAS FOUND
As we move beyond the 20th Anniversary of the collapse of the Twin Towers, we are being inundated with specials and tributes and remembrances and documentaries, as well we should be. Forgetting that day is NOT an option! I for one was very moved by National Geographic’s six-part 9/11 One Day in America, which pulled out all the stops to give us a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows, and, more important, let us attach names and stories to some victims and survivors and heroes; our attention is the very least we owe them.
One of the most surprising and unexpected specials is Apple+ TV’s airing of Come From Away, the hit Broadway Musical centered on Gander, Newfoundland, where one of the world’s largest airports became the home of 7,000 travelers stranded when American air space was shut down in the tragedy’s aftermath.
Originating in Canada in 2012, with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, it eventually made it to Broadway in March of 2017, where it remained until last year’s shut-down, where it is scheduled to resume performances September 21. It is currently the longest-running Canadian Musical in Broadway history.
The idea of a musical about 9/11 seems very wrong. But Come From Away succeeds by focusing on the Newfoundlanders and the “Come-From-Aways,” the passengers making an unplanned (and unwanted) stay, by finding moments of joy and fear and connection without forgetting what was lost on that day; the climactic number “Something’s Missing” powerfully tells us in song what can’t possibly be expressed in words.
The show succeeds by its sheer theatricality of conception – all the actors play both Newfoundlanders and Passengers, often switching character, costume, and accent in mid-song and all are on stage for most of the show. A turntable and some straight-backed chairs provide all the scenery, becoming airplane seats, cafeteria benches, bus seats, church pews, and, at one point, even a scenic overlook. Everything is in constant motion, and everything is driven by an energy that is stubbornly infectious, lasting long after the final titles have shown us the actors with their real-life counterparts.
The show succeeds by its score, a bevy of ear-worm-worthy melodies and rhythms that express the vitality of the community and its people, a score that can only be described as throbbing with fire, spirit, zest, and (especially) life.
And the show especially succeeds in leaving us with the sense that, despite all that was lost that day, what was found is equally worthy of attention and honor.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the residents of Gander are going about their business. The school bus strike is ongoing, in spite of both sides “coming to the table.” Beulah, the schoolteacher, promises her charges that the beautiful weather will mean just a “half-day this morning. We’ll have the other half this afternoon.” Bonnie, who runs the local ASPCA, drops her human kids off at school and goes on to give her other kids the belly-rubs they deserve. The one policeman is stopping speeders with a warning to “STFD – Slow the f**k down.”
But then, Air Traffic is advised that dozens of jets will be arriving, and thousands of passengers will need to be housed and fed. Gander, after all, was once the largest airfield in the world, a refueling spot for all transatlantic flights. Of course, since most jets are now able to make that journey non-stop, the field has been reduced to a lot of area for only a few flights (and the occasional moose).
We get to meet a diverse roster of “Come-From-Aways” -- Hannah, the mother panicked at the silence from her son, a fire-fighter in Manhattan; Beverly Bass, the American Airlines pilot who wants nothing to come between her and the sky; Phil and Phil, the gay couple whose differences are magnified by their little adventure; Ali, a Muslim “world class chef” who just wants to help with the cooking, even as his fellow passengers look on him with suspicion and even rage; the businessman from England and the housewife from Texas, who strike up an unusual friendship; Bob, the jaded urbanite who just can’t grasp the concept of the Newfoundlanders’ unconditional welcome and friendship.
There are also Africans who can’t communicate until someone gets the idea of using a Bible to find common language. There are the animals in the hold (including two exotic Bonobo Monkeys), which become Bonnie’s obsession, despite Security prohibiting her from entering the planes (at least until she proves more stubborn than those in her way).
Over-riding all is the television news, keeping everyone on edge, the worry that leaving the planes on the tarmac for too many days will render them unflyable, and an approaching hurricane, just in case things weren’t too stressful.
But there is, ultimately, the celebration, a foot-stomping rager complete with foot-stomping music, Screech (don’t ask), and “Kissing the Cod” (REALLY don’t ask).
And, as the air space reopens, the passengers go back to their homes and their changed world, while the Newfoundlanders clean up the mess (“We just ran a Zamboni over the field and played hockey”), facing the sweet emptiness that 7,000 “Come-From-Aways” had filled so fully.
There is a “what happened next” coda, the aforementioned gut-wrenching “Something Missing” number, and a return-to-Gander celebration for the tenth anniversary. And, of course, a rousing curtain call that sends us away from our computers and televisions with a light heart and a bounce to our step.
This cast is very good at quick-change-characterizations, especially Tony-nominated Jenn Colella, whose Captain Bass is a centering force of authority and de-stressing, but whose Gander character –Annette – is a comic gem of a middle-aged woman on the prowl for a manly pilot. Also impressive is Tony LePlage, whose Newfoundlander is a tough-as-nails union negotiator, but whose Phil is a gentle Californian who embraces everything Gander has to offer, which puts him at odds with his partner (also Phil –“It was cute for a while”), played with fey neuroticism by Caesar Samayoa, who also plays the Muslim chef Ali with a calm intensity that puts at ease even the angriest Islamophobe. Also on hand, and giving outstanding performances, are Petrina Bromley, De’Lon Grant, Joel Hatch, Q. Smith, Astrid von Wieren, Emily Walton, Jim Walton, Sharon Wheatley, and Paul Whitty. And, of course, as they must, they all gel into a truly powerful ensemble, creating specific group characteristics for Gander, as well as for the individual planes.
Directed by Tony-winning Christopher Ashley, Come From Away is a triumph of conception, of staging, of composition, and of production. It reminds us of the human aspects of history and tragedy, and is filled with the best of human nature, even in the midst of a darkness originating in the worst of human nature.
It is an ode to an indomitable and joyous human spirit, to the tendency to find the best in each other, to embrace “what is found” even as we mourn “what is lost,” moving beyond loss and tragedy to a more palatable future. Even if that future involves kissing a cod.
-- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ComeFromAway #Apple+TV)