Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christopher Ashley
Writer: David Hein, Irene Sankoff
Cast: Petrina Bromley,l Jenn Colella, De’Lon Grant, Joel Hatch, Tony LePage, Q. Smith, Caesar Samayoa, Astrid Van Wieren, Emily Walton, Jim Walton, Sharon Wheatley, Paul Whitty
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/20/21
Opens: September 10, 2021

Flying back to New York from a vacation in exotic Morocco, I recall landing in Gander, Newfoundland, which in 1968 was not at all unusual. In those days, planes could not hold enough fuel to make the thousands of miles of distance and had to stop in the Northern Canada province of Newfoundland to refuel. We looked out the window and found a bleak airstrip and probably imagined that nobody lived there. After all, who would choose a place with so much rain in the summer and so much cold in the winter?

Musical theater has nowput Gander is on the map. We know where it is, even though high school students would have to take half a period just to find Newfoundland, and few educated adults could locate Gander. When “Come From Away” opened at the Schoenfeld Theatre in New York’s Broadway, reaching the pinnacle of success after making the rounds from a Canadian college theater to the Great White Way, lucky audiences could marvel at the romping, stomping, ode to small-town friendship and generosity. We New Yorkers might think that the show’s book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein are unpacking a fantasy town no more real than Glocca Morra. Yet the story is based on actual events that occurred when on 9/11, when terrorists launched attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with planes ground throughout the U.S., thirty-eight of them at the small airport outside Gander.

“Come From Away,” which gets its title from the fact that the residents of Gander played host for several days to passengers who had come from away—England, Texas, New York and the like—could have been transferred from the stage to a full-blown movie like “Oklahoma.” Instead the company took a chance and gave us a photographed play. Since cinema opens up a story, simply catching a stage play may seem artificial to a movie audience, and to a great extent director Christopher Ashley’s experiment does not look cinematic. Some actors play several roles, changing their accents according to their characters’ several birthplaces, so it looks confusing when Gander’s mayor is seen sitting at a table discussing a school bus strike and is then a passenger on a plane back to the States. But we suspend disbelief even if we may not get a sense of place—the action could be in a tavern in upstate New York or Eugene, Oregon or a social hall at Camp Kee-Wah in the Oath Keepers controlled forests of Oregon.

The emphasis is on people who meet cute and are unlike people who may be stranded at Liberty Airport in Newark, NJ where people are unlikely to talk to strangers. And if you even stared at a guy for three seconds, you would evoke a conversation that would start with “Wha chu lookin’ at, dickhead?” and end with security busting out the duct tape. These folks, however. bond. They become so friendly with the help of Irish Whiskey that they meet in Gander for anniversaries. At least one couple are to become married. A Black fellow fears that he will be killed but is stunned to find that not only his wallet remains intact; he is invited to places for tea. An Orthodox rabbi is accommodated with vegetarian food in a town that probably has not a single Jew to provide a kosher meal. A pregnant chimpanzee gives birth and a cocker spaniel joins seventeen other animals who are staying over until the skies are cleared for takeoffs. A woman pilot relates her life; how she made history as the first American captain in the cockpit in 1986.

The dancing is nothing spellbinding save for a Irish jig that bursts forth about midway and the songs, though harmonized and lack variety are plentiful—almost like an opera in which the dialogue is mere recitative and the emphasis is on the mellifluous. Gander and surrounding communities take in the folks regardless of race, nationality or sexual orientation (one gay couple break up during the stay but get together in the end). From the time they are grounded to the song “Lead Us Out of the Night” through the sadness in which Hannah knows that her son is missing (“I Am Here”) to increasing fear told through the song “”On the Edge” through the joy at the good luck these stranded folks feel expressed through “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere,” we get a kaleidoscopic picture of joy, sadness, new love, and friendship formed through the irony of the worst terrorist attack in United States history.

101 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B-
Overall – B

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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