“Look for the helpers,” noted Mister Rogers in an oft-quoted observation about finding reasons for hope at the darkest times. A few of the many helpers (and those helped) to emerge from the horrors of 9/11 are remembered and celebrated in the Broadway musical “Come From Away,” filmed for Apple TV+ and released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of that tragic day.
It’s the kind of piece that makes one wish “a triumph of the human spirit” weren’t such an irredeemable cliché, as a dozen talented performers portray multiple roles each, as the townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland — who suddenly found themselves host to thousands of stranded travelers when U.S. airspace was closed down — and as the travelers themselves, all of whom are trying to make the best of a horrible situation.
Tony nominees Irene Sankhoff and David Hein (who wrote the book, music and lyrics) never paint a happy face on their story; the folks from Gander might be tireless in their hospitality and endlessly flexible in coping with the sudden doubling of the town’s population, but the dread and sadness of the time suffuses the material, even offering occasional glimpses of people at their worst amid what is generally a celebration of humanity’s nobler instincts.
It’s another Tuesday morning in Gander — the mayor and the head of the bus drivers’ union continue their ongoing argument at the local coffee shop, the local TV station has a brand-new reporter, the woman who runs the SPCA heads into work to feed the stray kitties and puppies — when news reports start coming in about the terror attacks. Gander’s usually sleepy airport suddenly becomes busier than ever; once the largest airport in North America, the facility was mostly abandoned once planes no longer needed to stop to refuel before crossing the Atlantic.
All of a sudden, Gander has 38 planes’ worth of re-routed passengers and must scramble to put together shelter, food, clothing, toiletries and other necessities. And once all those aircraft start disembarking, the townspeople and their guests find themselves facing new challenges, from an Orthodox rabbi pressed into service to create a kosher kitchen to the SPCA lady tending to a cat with epilepsy and a pregnant bonobo monkey.
Among the roster of fascinating characters is American Airlines’ first female pilot, horrified to learn that the vehicle that has given her life meaning has been turned into a bomb, and a variety of couples who come together or break apart in the hothouse atmosphere of crisis. In a cumulative gathering of brief moments — some spoken, some sung — those characters embody resiliency, tragedy and bigotry (anti-Muslim sentiment rears its ugly head almost immediately).
It would take too long to list them all by character, but this extraordinary ensemble of actors deserves mention: Petrina Bromley, Jenn Colella, De’Lon Grant, Joel Hatch, Tony LePage, Caesar Samayoa, Q. Smith, Astrid van Wieren, Emily Walton, Jim Walton, Sharon Wheatley and Paul Whitty. They effortlessly flow in and out of each role they play, and together, they cohesively and powerfully tell this story.
Director Christopher Ashley (the Broadway veteran’s screen credits include 1995’s “Jeffrey”) dynamically translates the material from stage to streaming; he knows where the closeups need to go, and editors Virginia Katz and Leslie Jones always follow Tobias A. Schliesser’s camera to exactly where it needs to be. (Ashley adds a level of poignance by opening on a masked audience making their way through an empty Times Square to attend the recording of the performance, linking New York’s current struggle with one the city managed to bounce back from two decades ago.)
There are, of course, countless prisms through which to examine the events of 9/11 and their lingering impact, but “Come From Away” offers one that is stirring and funny, moving but never mawkish. It’s a story that provides hope without turning its eyes from despair.
“Come From Away” premieres on Apple TV+ September 10.