God I love live theater.
There’s nothing quite like the experience of having a performance connect with you on a visceral level. Certainly the loss of live theater during the pandemic falls under the “want” not “need” category, but it was a loss all the same.
And nothing is as extraordinary as going into a production having no idea what to expect and leaving the theater completely transformed. By the time I saw Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, there had been so much advance hype that I practically believed the performances would be so amazing that I would leave the theater taller, thinner and with better hair. Yes, the productions were terrific. But I also expected nothing less.
I had no expectations of Come From Away, one of the last live productions I attended before the world shut down. Although nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2017, the musical has not achieved broad pop cultural acclaim. Perhaps that’s because it tells the story of what happened when 38 commercial flights full of 7,000 passengers were grounded for five days in the town of Gander, Newfoundland after September 11, 2001. Let’s be honest: It’s not a plot description that screams “This calls for a Broadway musical.”
But it is one of the most amazing musicals I have ever seen. Its themes of hope, love, community and grief combined with its message, focused on what can be achieved when people come together for a collective life-affirming goal, is timeless. Perhaps now, when we are smack dab in the middle of another crisis, Come From Away can be an escape, a ray of light, a salve on our open wounds. It’s a gift—truly—that a filmed performance of the stage musical is being made available on the eve of the 20th anniversary of September 11. (By the way, Come From Away returns to Broadway on September 21 and a quick search indicates tickets will run you $100-200. It makes the $4.99/month of Apple TV+ look like a bargain.)
So much can be lost in translation as a musical makes its move from the stage to the screen. Cats, anyone? Often, filming a stage version cannot quite capture the magic of an in-person performance. That doesn’t happen here. Come From Away may be the best filmed version of a musical I have seen. As directed by Christopher Ashley, who won the show’s sole Tony for his work, it is perhaps the closest thing you can experience to transforming your living room into a theater. The camera angles invite the viewer in—not so up close that you see spittle a la Jonathan Groff in Hamilton, but not so distant that you feel like you are in the back row with an obstructed view. For a performance that is constantly in motion, Ashley knows when to follow along and when to be still. This production—filmed 14 months into the shutdown for an audience of 9/11 survivors and front-line workers, reuniting much of the original and current Broadway cast—captures the power of a live performance. The electrifying performances connect through the screen.
The stories of both stranded passengers who have no idea what has happened to divert their flights and the town that completely stopped to help strangers in need are woven seamlessly in and out of the show, with all the actors playing multiple roles. Hannah (Q. Smith) and Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren) bond over the fact they both have sons who are firefighters. Hannah is awaiting word on if her son is okay in New York, while Beulah struggles to offer her new friend comfort. Bonnie (Petrina Bromley), manager of the local animal shelters, cares for those left as cargo on the planes: Dogs, cats, even two bonobos on their way to the Columbus Zoo. Texan Diane (Sharon Wheatley) and Englishman Nick (Jim Walton) find a romance blossoming amid tragedy while Kevin (Caesar Samayoa) and Kevin (Tony LePage) struggle to make sense of their relationship now that the world is forever changed. It’s local news reporter Janice’s (Emily Walton) first day on the job and covering a devastating crisis is not what she expected.
Jenn Colella, Tony-nominated for the role, is a standout as Beverly Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines commercial flight. She was flying Paris to Dallas when her flight was grounded at the Gander International Airport. “Me and the Sky” tells her professional journey and Colella’s inspirational performance will leave you with chills. The song is at times defiant, at times sad, at times funny and, at times, a “I am woman, hear me roar” anthem—and Colella pulls the viewer in every step of the way. One line, “And the one thing I love more than anything was used as a bomb,” will stay with you long after her song ends.
Part of the reason the musical is so transformative is there is no intermission. It runs straight through for a little over 100 minutes—taking viewers from the normal morning in Gander with the bus drivers on strike and the school year starting, to the welcoming of strangers, to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 when those that came from away returned to Gander to remember and thank those who cared for them so kindly.
The sparse stage—set only with tables and chairs—form the aisles of a plane, rows of buses, bar stools, churches and even a Tim Hortons. With nothing to distract the viewer’s eye, the bare-bones set brings the incredible performances to the forefront. The actors never leave the stage, just switch up a few costume items (a jacket, a hat) and a few accents to portray different characters. They move with a precise, soothing, seamlessly choreographed rhythm. For a show with a foundation in tragedy, it has some truly funny moments—many of which lovingly mock Gander’s kindness: “Thank you for shopping at Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?”
With a book, music and lyrics written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the songs are powerful, invigorating, poignant and plaintive. From the opening lines of “Welcome to the Rock” to the finale with its refrain of “We all come from away,” there’s a pulsing, infectious, toe-tapping pace. In the finale, Gander Mayor Claude (Joel Hatch) says, “Tonight we honor what was lost but we also commemorate what we found.” Beauty from tragedy is the foundation of Come From Away. An enduring message for us all.
Director: Christopher Ashley
Writer: David Hein, Irene Sankoff
Starring: Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, De’Lon Grant, Joel Hatch, Tony LePage, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, Emily Walton, Jim Walton, Sharon Wheatley, Paul Whitty
Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Apple TV+)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).