Review: The Band’s Visit Creates Poignancy in Simplicity

“Once, not too long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

So begins The Band’s Visit, a new musical that swept the 2018 Tony Awards, now playing at the Cadillac Palace through September 15. Last year, the production, directed by Chicago’s David Cromer, won a whopping 10 of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including everything from Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design to Best Actor, Actress, Featured Actor and the night’s top prize, Best Musical.

Image courtesy Broadway in Chicago.

The prologue is slightly misleading, as what follows is perhaps uneventful but never uninteresting. The relationships that develop over the show’s single act, all of which takes place on a single night in a small, forgotten desert town, become nuanced vehicles for some of the most poignant connections possible between people, no matter where they’re from or what they believe. This touring version of the show, itself based on the 2007 film of the same name, takes its time exploring these relationships; tonight’s production exceeded the anticipated 105 minutes, which itself is a quarter hour longer than the 90-minute runtime of the Broadway version. The pacing at times feels sluggish, with silence serving as much a purpose as the sparse, if gorgeous, musical numbers throughout.

But that’s a quibble, really. The story revolves around General Tewfiq Zakaria (Sasson Gabai, though it’s spelled Gabbay in the playbill), who also plays Tewfiq in the film. He’s the conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band who finds himself and his musicians stranded in a small Israeli town after a mix-up in their transportation. With no other buses leaving Bet Hatikva (they’re supposed to be in Petah Tikva, where they were invited to perform a concert at the Arab Cultural Center), the small band disperses into the homes of various townspeople for the evening, the former doing their best to be good guests, the latter to be good hosts. Tewfiq and band member Haled (Joe Joseph, with the voice of an angel) end up with Dina (Chilina Kennedy), owner of the town’s only cafe and a woman with far too much to offer this beige, boring town (their words in “Welcome to Nowhere,” not mine).

At Itzik’s home. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Over the course of the evening, we manage to learn quite a lot about Tewfiq, Dina, Haled and the rest of the players, both musician and civilian. Tewfiq and Dina head out on a small tour of the town, becoming unlikely friends with a palpable tension that there’s something more between them. Haled joins Papi (Adam Gabay) and Camal (Ronnie Malley) on a double date to the roller rink, giving the shy, anxiety-ridden Papi help with connecting with Julia (Sara Kapner), the girl he has a crush on. Clarinetist Simon (Or Schraiber at this performance, Ahmad Maksoud after September 10), staying with Itzik (Pomme Koch), his wife and new baby, finds himself soothing the fussy newborn with his unfinished concerto. These tentative, fragile connections are nevertheless beautiful to behold, handled with quiet confidence by a cast working with strong material.

Just 13 songs (music and lyrics by David Yazbek) are woven through the show, each one more beautiful than the last; Dina gets the lion’s share of the music (Tewfiq only sings once, a pensive Arabic melody), and her pining ballad “Something Different” is a torch song for the ages. But there’s plenty of music throughout; soul-stirring Middle Eastern themes run throughout, as various members of the band stay on stage throughout, providing instrumentation through scene transitions and around pivotal moments. Structured around a rotating stage that moves us from Dina’s cafe to the roller rink to Itzik’s apartment and more, the staging (scenic design by Scott Pask) is as simple as Bet Atikva itself, yet quite effective.

Before seeing The Band’s Visit, I caught Moulin Rouge on Broadway, the new adaptation of the classic Baz Luhrmann film; with ornate sets, an impressive all-star cast, ovation-worthy choreography and something like 70 songs packed into its two acts, it’s an absolute wonder. Sensory overload never felt so good. Which makes it as stark a contrast as possible to a show as understated (and every bit as romantic) as The Band’s Visit. It’s a bit like the experience of watching a Marvel blockbuster, all explosions and special effects, then immediately switching over to a foreign indie film, a movie that demands your attention every bit as much without ever having to try as hard.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone