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edge staff writer


Welcome to the Rock – ‘Come From Away’

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I’ve never been one to enjoy filmed versions of stage shows. Now, I’m not saying adaptations – those can be lovely. I’m talking pointing cameras at a stage where a show is going on. Most of the time, you lose the immediacy and energy that makes live performance great and you also lose the production values and delicacy that film provides. It’s literally a lose-lose.

And then you see things that remind you that every rule has its exceptions.

“Come From Away,” currently streaming on Apple TV+, is one of those exceptions. The musical, with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein and which first hit Broadway five years ago, tells the story of a small town in Newfoundland that found itself playing host to thousands of unexpected visitors following the shutdown of U.S. airspace after the tragic events of September 11. It’s a tale of kindness and generosity, a story of love and loss and the myriad connections that can come from the unforeseen.

Now, this is very much a filmed play and not a movie. That said, it’s remarkable how well this show works in this context. There’s quality production work happening here, camera work and editing and the like coming together to find that very narrow sweet spot. “Come From Away” doesn’t suffer those losses of energy or delicacy; rather than be diminished by the overlapping of media, it is enhanced.

Of course, it helps that the ensemble is tight and talented and the songs absolutely slap.

The morning of September 11, 2001 is pretty much like any other morning in the small town of Gander in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The mayor’s out there getting the lay of the land. Teachers are getting ready for school and one of the two police officers is out writing warning tickets. There’s a new girl taking over the local news beat and there’s an ongoing conflict between the town and the school bus drivers. Theirs is a quiet life.

When disaster strikes New York City, all planes in the air are ordered to land immediately. For 38 of those planes, their ultimate landing spot is the airport in Gander; it was once a popular refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights back in the day, so it’s huge. Big enough to handle all of those planes.

As for the people on them? Well, that’ll be a little trickier.

Thousands of people would ultimately disembark from those planes, spilling out into Gander and the surrounding communities; the population of Gander would effectively double as these passengers from all over the world – scared, confused and angry – entered their community with little more than the clothes on their backs.

And so Gander … took care of them. This tiny Newfie town fully mobilized, doing everything they could to feed, clothe and comfort these thousands of guests. Volunteers and donations, community shelters … people straight up inviting strangers to their homes for dinner or a hot shower or a bed or all of the above. And for five days, this generous community welcomed people from all over the globe solely because they could and it was the right thing to do. While the world was at a standstill, this gentle corner of the continent provided safe haven to a lot of people who needed just that.

I was aware of “Come From Away” – I’d heard of the musical and knew the basic plot; I had a number of friends who were big fans – but I had very little direct experience with it. And while I have a general affection for the form, I’m not always going to love a musical. Throw in the whole “filmed play” deal and I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this.

Folks, I loved it. LOVED it.

Musical storytelling is a delicate dance. Crafting a narrative that properly engages while also allowing space for songs and production numbers? That’s hard. Too often, one aspect overwhelms the other, resulting in imbalance. Here, we’re gifted a compelling story that is driven forward through the music – there’s a wonderful synergy here that is absolutely lovely.

As far as the translation from stage to screen – it really works. A major component to success with this sort of project is finding an organic feel to the editing and transitions. We do move from camera to camera, from wide shot to close up. There are a couple of overhead shots and a few handheld moments. But it’s all seamless, with the director steering us toward the moments with which we’d be engaging anyway, only instead of a static wide shot, we’re allowed to be that little bit closer.

It’s simple staging – mostly chairs and tables and an in-stage revolve. There are a handful of props, but a lot of stuff is simply mimed. That stripped-down vibe doesn’t always read true through a screen, but the performances and production are so good here that it’s a non-issue – you’re lost in the world they’ve made by the time we reach the end of the opening number.

From that opening number – the raucous “Welcome to the Rock” – we’re off and running. The music is wonderful, incorporating the influences of Maritime musicianship into a musical theatre framework; it beautifully captures this place in a way that story alone could not have done. Mandolins and fiddles and traditional drums play alongside the standard guitar and bass and drum kit. Uptempo, downtempo, comedic, dramatic – there’s nary a false note. As I said earlier – the music slaps.

As to the performers, my feelings about the power of a quality ensemble are well-documented. I think there’s nothing greater to see on the stage than a cast acting as one, totally and fully connected. That’s what this cast is. This collection of a dozen actors, all playing multiple characters, sliding in and out of personae with easy grace. They change a hat and a coat and an accent and boom! Someone else. Twelve people crafting entire populations, developing a bustling community through energy and sheer force of will. It’s impressive as hell to watch, and while I could point out this performance or that, I choose instead to recognize the group as a whole – this show embodies the notion of “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Rest assured, there are no small actors here.

“Come From Away” is incredibly evocative in terms of emotion – I was overwhelmed with feeling multiple times throughout (though I’ll concede that I’m a soft touch generally). It is a beautiful show with a heartfelt message, a story about the connections that we make through the kindnesses that we do. You’ve got a fascinating story, great songs and a phenomenal cast – what’s not to love?

No matter where you’re from, “Come From Away” welcomes you with open arms.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 September 2021 15:08


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