Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Come from Away, Recorded Live-On Broadway

The international airport at Gander, Newfoundland used to be the great last-chance-for-gas station in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, when fuel capacity increased for transatlantic flights, it became an underutilized white elephant—until September 11, 2001. When the infamous terror attack, planned and coordinated by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, weaponized commercial airliners, 38 international flights were diverted to Gander. Since then, the hospitality of the local Newfoundlanders has become the stuff of legend, inspiring films and a hit Broadway Show. The Tony-winning director, Christopher Ashley subsequently helmed a filmed version of Come from Away (music, lyrics, and book written by Irene Sankoff & David Hein), which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

This was a special performance, recorded while Broadway was still dark during the pandemic shutdown, featuring many of the original cast-members, with many invited first-responders and 9/11 survivors in the audience, so you couldn’t ask for a more empathetic vibe in the house. As many of us remember, it all starts on an eerily beautiful morning. Like most days, Gander mayor Claude Elliott is at Tim Horton’s, measuring the town’s pulse, when he hears news of the attack. Understanding the strategic location of the Gander airport, he and the entire staff of air-traffic controllers swing into action.

Soon, the entire town is planning to host thousands of unexpected guests, except the striking bus drivers’ union (which is eventually shamed into cooperation by a vote of its membership). Initially, everyone is confused about why they are there and how long they will stay, especially the airlines. However, as the enormity of recent events sinks in, it becomes clear their extraordinary layover will last more than a day.

Some guests, like eco-energy entrepreneur Kevin Tuerff try to make the best of things, but his partner, Kevin (“the other Kevin”) Jung, never warms to Gander’s charm. Much to their surprise, American divorced-mom Diane Gray and British petroleum middle-manager Nick Marson finds themselves flirting together. However, Hannah O’Rourke too preoccupied waiting for news of her firefighter son, but she still finds friendship and comfort with Beulah Davis, a local gander volunteer.

Come from Away is an example of a book musical that is arguably too well-written to spawn a breakout hit song. For instance, “Me and the Sky,” the feature number for Captain Beverly Bass (American Airlines’ first female captain, who was already a notable aviation figure in her own right) is melodically catchy and takes the audience on a vivid emotional ride, but it is highly specific to the circumstances of the character and the story. Regardless, it is still a showstopper whenever Tony-nominated original cast-member Jenn Colella performs it (it still gets me every time I hear it).

Every cast-member pulled double-duty, portraying at least one guest and one host, but they all differentiate their roles nicely. Ashley earned his Tony with the lively minimalist staging. It is basically a few chairs and revolving stage. Stylistically, it is somewhat akin to what you might expect from a comedy improv troupe, but it works on Broadway and the dynamic movement of the camera gives the film version a sense of energy that translates surprisingly well to screen. Frankly,
Come from Away is much more satisfying as a work of filmed entertainment than Disney’s Emmy-nominated Hamilton.

There is also a greater sense of humanity in
Come from Away, thanks to the wonderfully down-to-earth performances of the ensemble. After watching Joel Hatch play Claude Elliott (and several other locals mayors, who look comically similar), I’d vote for him for New York Mayor (honestly, we couldn’t do much worse than de Blasio). Tony LePage is terrific as Tuerff, particularly in a touching scene, in which he revisits a beloved hymn from his youth.

Jim Walton and Sharon Wheatley are quite endearing as Nick and Diane, while Q. Smith and Astrid Van Wieren really lower the emotional boom as Hannah and Beulah. De’Lon Grant gets laughs, before surprisingly choking us up in the finale, as Bob, a very-New-York New Yorker. Plus, Colella really should have won the Tony for the commanding but compassionate Bass.

There are moments throughout
Come from Away that vividly recreate the shock, confusion, and sorrow of those days in 2001. It is worth noting the show recreates Pres. Bush’s address to the nation in a way that respectfully captures the gravity of the moment. It also portrays religion (of all faiths) as force for consolation and empathy. In fact, those are some of the show’s most powerful scenes.

It would be nice if
Come from Away and Hamilton herald more theater programming on streamers. Even though Hamilton might be more famous, Sankoff & Hein wrote better songs (seriously, tunes like “I am Here” and “Stop the World” are way more memorable than “Room Where it Happens”). Very highly recommended, Come from Away starts streaming Friday (9/10) on Apple TV+.