October 19, 2021

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‘Come From Away’ loses none of its folksy charm on screen

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as the world confronts another zeitgeist-defining emergency, it’s good to be reminded of simple human kindness, the kind of charity too modest for fanfare, something as basic yet profound as a stranger bearing a blanket or plate of food in an hour of need.

“Come From Away,” the 2017 Broadway musical with a heartwarming story set in the immediate aftermath of that September day, follows the advice that young Fred Rogers received from his mother when frightened by events in the news: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this lovably hokey show, which has been successfully recorded on film, is available for streaming on Apple TV+ starting Sept. 10. It turns out that the screen provides a surprisingly hospitable frame for a musical that is quite purely and unabashedly — at times even downright earnestly — a work of theater.

The staging, which earned Christopher Ashley a Tony Award, retains its gallop even on a laptop. Despite my slight fatigue with a musical that has tenaciously hung around longer than I would have expected, I was stirred once again by a real-life 9/11 tale that takes place far away from ground zero, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania where brave passengers brought the final hijacked plane down.

Gander, the Canadian backwater “on the north-east tip of North America on an island called Newfoundland,” might seem tangential to the point of absurdity as a locale. But the town sits beside an airport that was once a key refueling stop for transatlantic flights, and when U.S. airspace was shut down to commercial traffic that airport became a refuge for planes that were stranded in the air.

Passengers and flight crews nearly doubled the population of Gander, adding 7,000 people from different countries as well as a number of cats and dogs, not to mention a pair of rare bonobos, one of which was pregnant. Barriers of language, culture, religion and even species would be dissolved in the exigency of a moment no one knew how long might last.

The townsfolk, shocked by the images of destruction being broadcast around the world, swung into action, gathering food, medicine and hygiene products while setting up shelters for the helpless travelers. A local SPCA volunteer weaved around security protocols to attend to the animals, which were as anxious as their human counterparts.

In Homer, hospitality is a sacred responsibility, a fundamental law of Zeus, the protector of strangers. Gander residents renewed this rite not out of fear of divine punishment but as an affirmation of civilization, which extends cooperation and reciprocity beyond kith and kin.

“Come From Away” celebrates this value by bearing witness to the selflessness of ordinary men and women, who rather than resenting the encroachment on their provincial peace embraced their role as global citizens with majestic humility. This generosity suffuses the musical and perhaps accounts for its enduring commercial appeal.

I appreciated this unpretentious show when I first encountered it in its La Jolla Playhouse premiere in 2015 but never expected that the musical would have such remarkable staying power. I underestimated the hunger for uplifting stories.

“Come From Away” has been criticized for promulgating a feel-good 9/11 narrative that only perfunctorily considers some of the more troubling dimensions of this historical turning point. Racial profiling and religious discrimination are given short shrift. And while the company of the show isn’t homogeneous, the musical leaves out perspectives that might find more to discuss than a surge of good Samaritanism in the wake of an attack that led to the buildup of the modern security state and two decades of war.

Filmed at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York in May with an audience that included 9/11 survivors and frontline workers, this presentation of “Come From Away” preserves the folksy charm of a musical that would have likely fallen flat in a dramatic adaptation. The screen version is less cinematically kinetic than the “Hamilton” movie that came out last year on Disney+, but the theatrical envelope of the production is artfully maintained.

You’re never for a minute unaware that you’re watching a Broadway show. This is essential for a work in which the performers switch roles (Gander residents becoming passengers in the blink of a lighting cue), the scenery is minimalist and in constant motion, and there are no stars (though Jenn Colella earned a Tony nomination for her performance as a pioneering female pilot dedicated to keeping everyone on her flight safe).

Ashley accentuates in his film what is most luminous in his staging. That includes the magnificent lighting design of Howell Binkley, who died last year. The hues of the production create a theatrical world unto itself, allowing the frolicsome choreography of Kelly Devine to move with unflashy freedom.

Best of all, the veteran cast members of “Come From Away” look convincingly like the ordinary characters they’re playing. The heroes of 9/11 weren’t those swanning in the spotlight but regular folks answering the call of compassionate duty.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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