Review: Joyous 9/11-Inspired Musical 'Come From Away' a Fount of Solace

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 10, 2021

Jenn Colella Caesar Samayoa and guitarist Nate Lueck in 'Come From Away'
Jenn Colella Caesar Samayoa and guitarist Nate Lueck in 'Come From Away'  (Source:Apple TV+)

Pandemic-weary theater lovers will find relief and delight in the filmed version of the Christopher Ashely-directed Broadway production of "Come from Away." The lively, funny, and sensitive musical recounts the true story of how 38 planes' worth of air travelers found themselves welcomed by the residents of a small Canadian village — and the way the five days they spent stranded there changed everyone involved.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein's book, music, and lyrics tell the story of how 7,000 unexpected guests literally dropped in on the residents of Gander and surrounding communities on September 11, 2001, as the result of air traffic being re-routed and grounded due to the terrorist attacks of that day.

The town has its ow concerns and controversies (including a bus drivers' strike), but the urgency of the situation prompts them to put those things aside in order to look after the passengers, who are confused and frightened... not to mention exhausted, especially after spending hours in the air and then more hours on the ground, with no information as to what's going on.

When the passengers are finally allowed to get off the planes, they are housed in homes and impromptu shelters. It's one more moment in a frightening succession of strange events they don't understand; one character, speaking no English, attempts to get some idea of what's happening, and it's only through the use of his bible that a local man with a knowledge of appropriate chapters and verses is able to bridge the language gap, pointing the traveler and his wife to Philippians 4:6 ("Be anxious for nothing").

Once the passengers have access to televisions and translators, they learn about the events of the day. That's when local residents and stranded travelers begin to form connections with each other, and their stories take shape: Two mothers, Hannah (Q. Smith) and Beulah (Astrid Van Wieren), both have firefighter sons; Hannah worries for her son in New York, as Beulah seeks to support her. A British man, Nick (Lee MacDougall), strikes up a romance with a Texan woman, Diane (Sharon Wheatley). An African American New Yorker (Rodney Hicks) bonds with a town mayor. A gay couple from Los Angeles (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) discover that they respond to the stress of the situation in very different ways. A Muslim man, Ali (Samayoa), falls under suspicion from fellow passengers and authorities alike, but Beulah allows him to pitch in and help with the cooking when he reveals he's a master chef. A veterinarian, Bonnie (Petrina Bromley), makes sure all the animals on the flights — dogs, cats, and bonobos — receive their share of care and attention.

A company of a dozen actors take on the major roles of both townspeople and passengers, playing multiple roles in the process and acquitting themselves well. There are many moments of relatable humor (Nick's discomfiture at the noisy drunkenness of other passengers when the stewardesses start handing out free drinks) and just as many poignant passages in which we learn more about various characters' personal lives (such as the AA pilot Beverly Bass (Jenn Colella) — the airline's first woman captain — who remains tough, effective, and humane throughout the crisis.

There are moments that verge on corn, especially one passage in which one of the gay men (they are both named Kevin; in this case, it's the one played by Kimball) strikes up a hymn, "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace." Gratifyingly, the moment broadens and deepens into an interfaith ode, titled simply "Prayer," that includes Jewish and Muslim characters, as well as an exchange between a rabbi and a resident of Gander, the son of Jewish refugees from World War II-era Poland, who is able to share the truth of his heritage... a secret he's been keeping for his entire life.

The show's highlight is a communal cookout that brings everyone together in a celebration of community and friendship — a bright moment in a chaotic, dismal time. The play will bring viewers who remember the terror, shock, and sorrow of 9/11 to tears (probably more than once) but the production also offers a sense of healing. (The kindness shown to the stranded travelers has had other inspiring effects, as well, such as more than a million dollars in donations to a scholarship for the town, and the establishing of the Pay It Forward 9/11 Foundation by one of the gay men featured in the story, Kevin Tuerff.)

Being based on real characters and events, not every story arc in the play ends happily. But the play overall is a fount of solace and even joy, a worthy return to the COVID-ravaged world of theater and a fitting memorial on the twentieth anniversary of a dark and terrible day. It's a story we need to see, with songs we need to hear, more than ever; if only every national and global trauma (the 2016 election, COVID-19, January 6, 2021) could be addressed and soothed with such generosity, fellowship, and unity of purpose.

"Come from Away" streams at Apple TV+.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.