Writers Theatre’s The Band’s Visit to a Small Israeli Town Features Intimate and Emotional Storytelling

Dina (Sophie Madorsky) enters at the top of the show. The space is empty as she calmly stares down at the audience and whispers the opening lines of the play:

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

The Band’s Visit takes place in 1996—almost 20 years ago, but still entirely relevant. The Middle East is still in the midst of a challenging political crisis, and a play about Egyptian musicians landing in an Israeli town still might invite a number of assumptions. However, being loosely based on a true story, you might just find that the story that unfolds—despite Dina’s warning, feels incredibly important. The play is now on stage at Writers Theatre, directed by Zi Alikhan.

Rom Barkhordar and Sophie Madorsky in THE BAND'S VISIT. Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Rom Barkhordar and Sophie Madorsky. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

With music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit takes place in a small Israeli desert town—or “nowhere” as the locals so lovingly call it. When a bus carrying an Egyptian band finds itself stuck in the town for the night (because of a mixup in the name of the band's destination town), the local folks decide to take in the musicians—Haled (Armand Akbari), Camal (Adam Qutaishat), Simon (Jonathan Shaboo), and Tewfiq (Rom Barkhordar). Over the course of the story, we see music trickle through the cracks, helping everyone connect and bridge over their differences in a way that only art can inspire.

The Tony Award-winning musical features a hit score including “Waiting,” “It Is What It Is,” “Omar Sharif,” and “Answer Me.” The collaboration between director Zi Alikhan and choreographer Sebastiani Romagnolo is seamless, especially given the added factor of live, actor-driven music. Every individual on stage moves in between performing a character in the narrative and playing an instrument as a member of the ensemble. Not only does this demonstrate the obvious talent of the cast, but also adds to the theatricality of the storytelling. The play almost feels like the town as a whole sharing a memory, with the intimate atmosphere of Writers Theatre drawing the audience into the emotion of the piece.

As we see the music do its work in bringing the folks of various backgrounds together, you might just find that what truly pushes this production over the top is the authenticity of the relationships. Over the course of the story, we see the characters connect over the most everyday of situations—including the question of how to impress a woman.

Dana Saleh Omar, Jonathan Shaboo, Dave Honigman, and Michael Joseph Mitchell in THE BAND'S VISIT. Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Dana Saleh Omar, Jonathan Shaboo, Dave Honigman, and Michael Joseph Mitchell. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

When Papi (played with charm by Sam Linda) and his friend go on a double date to a roller rink, Haled invites himself along with hopes of seeing the nightlife. Full of anxiety, Papi admits that he is terrified of talking to women, which sends him into “Papi Hears the Ocean.” Romagnolo’s choreography for this upbeat, bouncy number is hilarious as we see Papi do everything he can to avoid his date, Julia (Becky Keeshin)—despite everyone’s attempts to push them together while on roller skates.

As Haled absorbs Papi’s words and with a sense of pure understanding, he responds with “Haled’s Song About Love.” Slowing Papi down, he creates an opportunity for him and Julia to start over and find a way to share a common language. Akbari and Linda’s approach to the blooming friendship feels genuine as they laugh and connect with this new sense of honesty. If you’re anything like me, you might feel yourself as an audience member rooting for their connection just as much as that of Papi and Julia—if not more.

Fabulous performances and a heartfelt story alone make The Band’s Visit worth the glowing recommendation. The score is catchy, but more than that, the songs hit on an emotional and human level that you might find creates an access point for anyone experiencing the show.

Sam Linda and Becky Keeshin in THE BAND'S VISIT. Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Sam Linda and Becky Keeshin. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The creative team includes Afsoon Pajoufar as scenic designer, with lighting by Solomon Weisbard and costumes by Raquel Adorno. Andra Velis Simon is music supervisor and Jason Burrow is music director. Willow James is sound designer. Projections are by Smooch Medina. The stage manager is Miranda Anderson.

The first iteration of The Band's Visit was as a 2007 Israeli film, written by Eran Kolirin. At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, it won the Un Certain Regard, one of its many awards. The film was transformed into an off-broadway musical production by Yazbek and Moses, staged first by the Atlantic Theater Company in 2017, and transferred to Broadway in 2018. Both the off-Broadway and Broadway productions won many awards. The 2007 film is available on both Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.

The Band’s Visit has been extended through March 24 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are $50-$85 for Wednesday–Sunday performances. Running time is 95 minutes, without intermission.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Lauren Katz