The Band’s Visit shows why it’s a multiple Tony Award winner in its stop at The Kennedy Center and is a welcoming respite from the big-bigger-biggest splashiness of a typical Broadway musical. It’s a show that grabs your heart with the most unlikely thing in the world of showbiz: economy of means. Plot line, staging, set, costumes, even most of the singing itself are all intentionally spare. Most of the story takes place on a single night, in a kind of desert way station where strangers begin to talk and listen to one another. Humanity is revealed, and it feels magical.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name, the story follows one small band of Egyptian musicians heading to a cultural exchange gig in Israel who end up on the wrong bus. They get stranded for one night in the small “nothing” town of Bet Hatikva, Israel, where the pastime of locals is “waiting.”
It’s refreshing that there’s no overt politicizing the situation which seems to be the fodder of so much that gets presented on stage lately. These characters are not absorbed by geo-politics; they’re just trying to get through life. The Egyptians are strangers, to be sure, curiosities, though more for their sky blue, “Sergeant Pepper” band uniforms than anything else. One character, a kind of security-guard/bouncer type at a skating rink, tries to rile things up using the typical agitation over outsiders, but the other locals agree (in somewhat more colorful language) that he’s made of lower-anatomy stuff.
The Band’s Visit closes August 4, 2019 at The Kennedy Center.
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One of the most tender of scenes is between the band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay who starred in the movie and performed the role on Broadway after Tony-award winner Tony Shaloub left the show) and local café owner, Dina (Chilina Kennedy.) He is older, widowed, and ramrod stiff in his ways; she has a body and spirit restless and hungry. But they find connection talking about Egyptian films, which Dina had been introduced to as a child by her mother. In the song “Omar Sharif”, they find they have in common the memories of romance and sweet escape in the flickering celluloid stars.
Gabay and Kennedy carry the story, and they are both marvelous, but their relationship is not one of a musical comedy romance. The restraint in their portrayals and the limitations imposed on the emotional scope of their portrayals and the limitations of the scope of the arc of their characters’ journeys are part of the strength of this work.
Ensemble of The Band’s Visit touring company at The Kennedy Center. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)Let’s be clear, the creative partnership of David Yazbek, who created the music and lyrics, and Itamar Moses, who wrote the book, have wrought what is clearly intended as an ensemble piece, and this delicate architecture is seen throughout, with one moment melting into another, song into speech, scene into other scene.
Every singer-actor and musician gets featured in a number or instrumental solos not for performance grandstanding but simply because they’re in a setting and the dramatic situation calls for it. When Itzik’s wife storms out of the house over a tiff with her husband, Itzik (Pomme Koch) sings the simplest little 4-line ditty to his baby as if making it up on the spot, and Ronnie Malley as Camal joins him instrumentally, playing soothingly to calm the infant. Maybe, Itzik suggests that Camal’s unfinished prelude doesn’t have to end with trumpets and a big finale, but just like this in his house.
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This may as close to the guiding philosophy of the piece as the creative team will overtly tell us: when we are most exposed and vulnerable, that is when the inner power of the truth is revealed.
The closest thing to a “big number” is “Haled’s Song About Love.” Joe Joseph sings it with a true Broadway crooner’s set of pipes, and the disco ball spraying stars around the space sets up a big romantic number. But it’s all in Haled’s objective of trying to pump up his new friend’s paralyzed condition around women. He’s literally setting the mood and shifting the emotional intentions for the guy to “get over himself.” Joseph plays Haled, a ladies’ man always looking for pulchritude and physical connection, without making him either leading man or villain, and because of this he wins us over honestly.
The music is comprised of many deceptively simple tunes. The performers, some of them even bumping through registers and breaks, make us believe they are not singer-actors but just people who sing. Lullabies are mixed with raw musically descending indie-pop lines, and also, at times, American-influenced jazz as the musical lingua franca. It’s only when the band breaks out together performing from their “classical Egyptian repertoire” that we get to exult with them in the deliciously pulsating music. The band behind the upstage wall, led by conductor/keyboardist Rick Bertone, adds enormously to these moments with a much-welcomed surge.
High credit is due Director David Cromer who allows the whole show to come across as raw and messy. From Dina singing “You Think You Know the Story” while attacking a watermelon with a knife to Adam Gabay and Sara Kapner awkwardly skating around the stage as the luckless Papi and his reluctant date, Cromer creates moments of human exchange and revelation. He also allows a master craftsman like the older Gabay to sit in stillness and fill long pauses with compressed emotion, indicating nothing but showing so much about a life frozen in regret.
I don’t know how this played to audiences in the balconies in the vastness of the Eisenhower Theater. (On opening night the place was packed to the rafters.) For this reviewer, sitting down front, it felt as if I were in the living room of a small community in Israel, listening to new friends play music and tell stories.
The Band’s Visit. Book by Itamar Moses. Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek. Directed by David Cromer. Scenic Design by Scott Pask. Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau. Costumes by Sarah Laux. Sound Design by Kai Harada. With Chilina Kennedy, Sasson Gabay, Pomme Koch, Joe Joseph, Mike Cefalo, Adam Gabay, Ronnie Malley, David Studwell, Jennifer Apple, Marc Ginsburg, Kendal Hartse, Sara Kapner, James Rana, Or Schraiber, and The Band with Tony Bird, George Crotty, Evan Francis, Roger Kashou, and Ronnie Malley. Presented by the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
I was one of the people in the balconies. The show and stories felt just as intimate to me as they would if I had been on the stage, surrounded by the players. The show is delicate and sweet. “Answer Me” had me crying happy tears as though it had been me who [spoiler] instead of people on stage.
If you’re in need of something brash and fun, “Aladdin,” which is playing at the Opera House, is a good show, and watching the children in the audience makes it even more delightful. If you’re in the need for something quietly moving, with swaying music you can let yourself get lost inside for a little while, “The Band’s Visit” is perfect. Not everyone needs that, but if you even suspect you might, go. Go.
Seems like a must-see.
Spot on! The way the musical interludes felt organic to the progression of the plot and the development of the characters adds to the immersive experience of the show.
Robert Darling says
What a beautiful review of an unusual evening of Music-Theater. Thank you. Terrific this piece has survived on Broadway and now on tour.