"A Staged Reading of a World Premiere Musical"
This past Saturday marked 20 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, bringing tribute to the saddest and darkest day in American history. Yes, there was a time when much of the Western world was united in the face of catastrophe.
It was on September 11, 2001 that 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group, al Qaeda, hijacked four airplanes and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which immediately triggered major U.S. initiatives to combat terrorism and simultaneously helped define the presidency of George W. Bush.
That day seemed to be an ordinary work day at first. It was just a few minutes before 8, on a Tuesday morning — time to get to work, and people were up and at it already. In Lower Manhattan, there was a glorious view of the sunrise east toward the heart of the financial district, the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. Across the skyscraper chasm, up on the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, a small group of employees were bustling around the office as usual, and small talk filled the air — chatting about who’s dating who, wondering about their mother’s health, checking on kids, meeting office deadlines (“Another Day”).
Real people, not characters in a movie, yet all of them soon to be caught up in surreal scenes of dread and death and horror organized by perpetrators who seemed to understand perfectly the theatrics of American culture. People surviving or dying in ways at once shudderingly alien and hauntingly familiar, if only before seen on celluloid. People rendered speechless by what they witnessed. People making selfless choices, some leading to death. People allowed only the choice of how to die, with some reduced to a limbless corpse on the street. People in their own isolated hells, yet somehow connected to one another and to the entire world by spectacular technology that could spread their voices and their images and do everything — except save the doomed among them.
Every once in a while, you encounter a piece of art that presents a stunning portrait of grief, hope and all human emotion. And even though thousands of people are represented, it is an incredibly personal and intimate collaboration by Rose Center Theater’s Resident Artist Vincent Aniceto (book and lyrics) and Managing Director Tim Nelson (music). Credited as Co-Directors and Musical Directors, the production is a staged reading of a World Premiere Musical, which opened for two days only, September 11th and 12th.
They both knew they needed to find twenty four phenomenal actors to do the script justice — actors that can express real emotion, simply, powerfully. The result was an ensemble of performers able to provide a cathartic experience to the audience that was welcomed but unexpected. Add some simple props, some costumes and chairs, and it was everything live theater is supposed to be. The incredible freshly composed music is the key, and may be the best way to commemorate this 20th anniversary.
“Bright Blue Sky” covers a vast expanse of sensitive material which may stir fraught memories among many of us that have lost friends or loved ones that day. Even the most stalwart theatre-goer may have trouble staying dry-eyed during this portrait of a heroic workforce trapped floors above the crash point of the plane. All the performers manage to convey clearly separate, idiosyncratic identities. Amid the surreal blur of activity within that small office, people begin new friendships, come to a realization of their own fleeting mortality, speak their goodbyes, and realize that the world will never, ever be the same again.
The play is divided into two paradoxical acts: The first act an upbeat, endearing, even funny at times getting-to-know-you, featuring songs like “Forevermore,” “Gracie’s Advice,” “Whaddaya Got,” which morphs into a terrifying and sobering awareness at the end of the act, when all the employees finally realize their tower was hit by a plane.
The cast features Vincent Aniceto as Robert; Aly West and Sofia Aniceto alternating as Young Sofia; Katherine Chatman as Adult Sofia; Kristen Daniels as Olivia; Seth Merrill as Jeremy; Chris Caputo as Douglas Stonegate; Kristen Henry as Meredith Stonegate; Stephanie Bull as Gracie; Alexis Karol as Terrie; Billy Aniceto as Ben; Melissa Cook as Mary; Taven Blanke as Timmy; Cliff Senior as Albert; Jennifer Matthews as Alice; Trevin Stephenson as Victor; Jessica Kirk as Martha; Val Aniceto as Kent; Cat Valentine as Stephanie; Jon Gale as James; Jerred Yeash as Vincent; Rylie Herbel as Sandra; Taylor Bannert as Captain; and Sophia Courtemarche as Sarah.
Each, incredible singers, each instrumental in portraying a straightforward and intensely personal view of the attack, a story told with such vivid detail and narration that at times it was hard to listen. The office dealt with their grief in different ways, a reminder that life can be upended at a moment’s notice in the worst way possible. Some clung to the other; some withdrew into themselves; all did a final phone call to their loved ones. Two of the songs in Act 2 were reprises (“Mi Cielo,” “Forevermore,”), taking on a different meaning then. Others, such as “What Just Happened,” “You are My One Hope,” “Remember,” became numbers that stirred the strings of your heart.
The First Plane: American Airlines Flight 11 had backed away from Gate 26 of Terminal B at Boston’s Logan Airport and was rolling toward the runway for a six-hour flight to Los Angeles. The flight was about 20 minutes out of Logan when the call of concern came from air traffic control. They had given the go-ahead for the flight to climb to 31,000 feet, but nothing happened, and no word from the captain or co-pilot.
Somewhere above Albany, the plane veered off its flight path, heading south down the Hudson River, the water gleaming in the morning sun. What happened next is to a large degree forever unknowable. But a few voices apparently made their way to the outside world, reporting that five hijackers had taken over the plane.
Intermittently, traffic controllers were able to pick up snatches of conversation from the cockpit. “We have more planes. We have other planes.” Then, as the jetliner buzzed toward Lower Manhattan, a roar overhead caused onlookers to watch in horror as the plane approached the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A few in the crowd noticed the plane seemed to tilt at the last second, as though wanting the wings to take out as many floors as possible. It was 8:46.
There was a strange sound and a high-pitched whoosh, and many people in the towers felt an intensity but thought it might have been an earthquake, or perhaps a bomb…until they saw the black smoke encasing the building like a tomb. Inside the tower, the building was on fire, and shaking on its foundation. Fire marshals were now on the stairwells below the crash site, urging people to walk on the right and keep moving. People were fainting, collapsing, being passed along overhead so they wouldn’t slow the escape too much. High above, on those floors in the nineties and hundreds where our office group works, there are no stairwells to reach, no way out, except the windows and free-falling down a thousand feet. Some were in the inferno itself, others were just above it, contemplating their fate, while the walls and floors crumbled, the heat rising.
Above the melee, our panic-stricken office group huddles over by the windows, looking out. “Oh, my God!” one shouted. “They’re jumping. People are jumping!” One of the office's own senior staff members named Albert, confused and panic-stricken, dives out a window.
The Second Plane: It was now 8:58. United Flight 175 had left Boston for Los Angeles and had crossed over Massachusetts, Connecticut and lower New York State into New Jersey before the five terrorists on that plane took it on a different path, pounding also toward Manhattan at low altitude. Air traffic controllers had caught sight of the wayward aircraft on radar as it made its descent, but its identification was unknown. At this point, they were still searching for American Flight 11. They knew it had been hijacked but were unaware that it was the first plane to hit the tower.
By this time Flight 175 was searing its image forever into the consciousness of millions who were watching on television as it came into view in the last second of its approach to the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03am.
Then the fireball. Monstrous billowing of orange flames shot from the South Tower and people began jumping from the top floors there too. Screaming, even just talking, caused airways to swell shut. Everyone races for the stairs but they are all log-jammed and blocked. All elevators were dead, as the haunting thought floods each of their minds: “How do I get out of here?” Minutes drag by, and our office group in Tower 1 stares bleakly out the windows into space, frozen in terror. Words no longer mean anything.
Two planes gone, targets hit. At 9:51, the South Tower collapses and falls, floor upon floor, down a thousand feet, shooting out another hideous billow, this one of soot and dust and ash, crushing and burying all the firefighters and rescue workers and fearless souls who had charged up the stairwells on missions of hope.
Much of the television coverage had been so calm and distant that even with such an intense focus it was not completely clear how awful it was, or had been, for people trapped on those tower-top floors.
At 10:28 the North Tower finally collapses, the steel giving way in 1,000-degree heat, office after office folding down one upon the next, and then, again, that giant evil cloud of ash. Slowly the resignation of unspeakable loss sets in.
All 24 actors onstage carry the baton together throughout the hour and a half runtime. Each actor gets their moment to shine telling the shared story through the characters’ individual experiences, making the collective whole the true star of the production. Their tone and speech patterns capture the cadence of panic in their voices, amplifying the distress and ever-increasing horror of the day.
It’s why, in these divisive times, we turn to art to help us reflect, explore, understand, progress. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 inspired countless books, films, and of course, pieces of theatre. This month, as we remember the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, it is important to honor now more than ever the wrenching, agonizing stories that were swept into the vortex of this huge tragedy.
For “Bright Blue Sky,” written and directed by Vincent Aniceto and Tim Nelson, is as honorable in its intentions as it is forthright in its sentimentality. And it may provide just the catharsis you need in such an American moment marred by notorious and reprehensible behavior.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report