The Band’s Visit
At the Cadillac Palace Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – How’s this for an improbable storyline for a Broadway musical. The year is 1996. An eight-piece band from Egypt travels to Israel to perform a concert in the major industrial city of Petah Tikva. But through a ticket confusion, the band inadvertently winds up in a backwater desert Israeli town called Bet Hatikva, stranded for a night until the band can catch a bus the next morning to their intended destination.
The show, which runs about 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, portrays events that happen during that night as the suddenly host Israelis interact with the unexpectedly guest Egyptians.
“The Band’s Visit” is not about clashing Israeli and Arab cultures that have troubled the Middle East for decades. The band and the villagers, initially puzzled by their surprise meeting, are genuinely civil toward each other, quickly and credibly connecting with common bonds of loss, longing, love, and humor. No emotion is forced or stagey. There are no political polemics or excessive love-thy-neighbor theatrics. So in a sense, “The Band’s Visit” triumphs by what it is not rather than by what it might have descended into in a less sensitive production.
The core characters in the musical are Tewfiq, the leader of the band, and Dina; the operator of the local café, a sharp tongued and attractive former dancer, overqualified to let her life dribble away in the barren village where she likely will live out her life. They are among the 18 characters, 8 Egyptians and 10 Israelis, whose emotions and yearnings pass before the audience with realistic but spellbinding richness.
“The Band’s Visit” originated as a 2007 Israeli motion picture, adapted into the musical by David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book), a duo who hauled off many of the production’s 10 Tony awards a couple of seasons ago. The character of Tewfiq is played by Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the motion picture. The role of Dina is taken by Broadway veteran Chilina Kennedy. They are the first among equals in a large ensemble , all of whom nail their roles, however large or small, with bull’s-eye insight.
The unifying thread throughout the evening is Yazbek’s score, which touches the audience with rueful songs of sadness and hope and romance. Indeed, music is the magnet that brings the two sides together, whether it’s Egyptian traditional music or references to American rock ‘n’ roll and jazz (the drollest line in the show is a repeated reference to jazz trumpeter Chet Baker).. The staging is punctuated by instrumental interludes in which band members play on stage or just off stage, establishing a reflective mood that envelops the audience. There are no brash Broadway melodies in Yazbek’s score. The songs vary in flavor among confessional, introspective, and humorous, all woven into the spare but flavorful dialogue to create a seamless whole.
The physical staging is a full partner in the show’s success. Scott Pask has designed a set based on large undecorated blocks of scenery that revolve to take the audience from interior to exterior locations in the bleak little town. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is dominated by nighttime shadows occasionally punctuated by bright visual effects. The costume designs by Sarah Laux perfectly evoke the gritty lifestyle of the villagers in contrast to the band’s sharp military-like uniforms. This isn’t a dancing show but Patrick McCollum’s choreography nicely fills out the ethnic feel of the narrative, effectively punctuating the low-key feel with bursts of exuberance.
Presiding magnificently over the production is Chicago-rooted director David Cromer. Cromer has meticulously orchestrated the action to achieve a wonderful flow that authentically tells the many stories in such comparatively brief playing time. The miniature character studies cumulatively build a moving and convincing mini-world that will only last for a night before the band moves on and the villagers return to their mostly unfulfilling lives. It’s magical stuff, minus any excesses of sentimentality, melodrama, or farcical comedy. The narrative has countless moving parts but it presents itself to the viewer without striking a single false note.
Sasson Gabay’s Tewfiq initially comes across as a humorous figure, prim and a little stiff, but soon enough we recognize the character’s dignity and intelligence. Gabay’s Tewfiq contrasts charmingly with Kennedy’s outgoing and cynical Dina. They connect, not thankfully as a romantic couple but as two adults who sense they may be emotional soul mates enduring the hard knocks that life has dealt them.
The supporting cast deserves individual acclaim but to represent the group we can spotlight Joe Joseph as the band’s lady’s man, Pomme Koch and Jennifer Apple as a village couple going through a troubled time in their marriage, and Adam Gabay (Sasson’s son) as a young man unlucky in trying to find romance in his life.
“The Band’s Visit” is a special kind of show, an intimate theatrical experience featuring a large cast who fit without problem in the large Cadillac Palace Theatre. The evening gets off to a slow start as the basic premise of the narrative and the many characters are introduced to the audience. But soon enough we are immersed in the show’s world and by the end of the evening we feel we know these people personally. The show does not promise that any of the characters will be altered forever by their cross-cultural meeting, but who knows?
The opening night audience’s approval was manifest throughout the evening with their rapt attention. A few spectators did rise to their feet but the majority were satisfied with expressing their pleasure and appreciation with contented murmurs as they filed up the aisle, a more fitting response to a musical that gives so much without raising its voice for approval.
“The Band’s Visit” is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street, through September 15. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39 through $106. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
‘The Band’s Visit’ gets a rating of
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!! September 2019
Follow Dan on Twitter
Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago