Review: The Band’s Visit
By Perry Tannenbaum
Loneliness. Isolation. Boredom. Stagnation. No, those aren’t the ways we think of the Middle East when all the newsclips we see splatter blood, anger, violence, terrorism, explosive devastation and mass migration in our faces. But in 2007, Israeli screenwriter and director Eran Kolirin explored a different side of the region in The Band’s Visit, a film that unearthed all those sorrowful and solitary dimensions we hadn’t seen before. Critics had no problem in perceiving that Kolirin was onto something, and the film garnered awards at festivals far beyond its native land in Cannes, Zurich, Montreal, and Australia – to name a few.
Nine years later, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, a musical adaptation of The Band’s Visit opened for a monthlong run Off-Broadway, moving to Broadway in 2017 after copping the Obie Award for best musical. Loneliness, isolation, boredom, and stagnation were still unapologetically intact, a rather lowkey brew for a Broadway musical. But 10 years after Kolirin’s film premiered, The Band’s Visit carried home 10 Tony Awards, a rather loud success.
Against such éclat, you’ll need to brace yourself for heavy doses of calm, quietude, and smoldering ennui in the touring version, now entering its second week at Knight Theater. The story begins at a Tel Aviv bus station, where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is expecting to be greeted by emissaries from Petah Tikva, where the band is scheduled to keynote the opening of a new Arab cultural center tomorrow evening. A two-minute wait on the Broadway stage is equivalent to a numbing five-hour vigil in real life. So instead of waiting any longer, the bandleader, Tewfiq, decides that the ensemble will take the bus.
Just as the English language doesn’t have a consonant like the guttural “h” at the end of Petah, Arabic doesn’t have an authentic parallel to the “p” sound, which was added to contemporary written Arabic to accommodate such foreign words as Pepsi (and Palestine). When the dreamboat trumpet player Haled goes to the ticket window, he returns with tickets to Bet HaTikva.
Now Petah Tikva is a real city with nearly a quarter of a million people, less than seven miles east of Tel Aviv. Bet HaTikva is another story – a fictional one – a dusty little town somewhere in the middle of the Negev Desert. It seems to boast a street café, a restaurant, a roller-skating rink, a pay phone, and a park bench that passes for the town’s park. But no hotel, and the next bus out of town isn’t coming till the following morning.
POV is a powerful tool, but it can also be a subtle one. By the time the Police Orchestra arrives in Bet HaTikva, clad in powder blue uniforms that might remind you of Paul McCartney on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, we can empathize with the disorientation of this Egyptian band. Because at one time or another, we’ve likely had that same sinking feeling of tourists who are lost in a strange place – and because the Egyptians don’t seem to be carrying any political beliefs in their baggage. These musicians carry themselves with dignity and a blend of meekness, restraint, and regimented discipline. Just what you would expect from cultural ambassadors who will be held accountable when they return.
The Bet HaTikva natives buy their story, but what are they to do with their visitors? Dina, the café owner, takes the lead – in cuing her friends on what tone to take toward their guests, distributing band members among neighboring households for their overnight stay, and in romantically pursuing Tewfiq. From there, the story splits into three, tracking Tewfiq, the more gregarious Haled, and Simon, one of the two clarinetists in the band.
Contrasts between the band and the townsfolk are obvious, but they aren’t always what you would expect, and they never boil over into outright Arab-Israeli hostility. Here it’s the Egyptians from Alexandria who are the urban sophisticates while the Israeli desert dwellers are the rubes. Haled’s hosts are nonplussed when he repeatedly asks if they know Chet Baker, even after he imitates the trumpet legend’s vocal on “My Funny Valentine.” On the other hand, Tewfiq is incredulous when Dina reveals that she listened to music on Egyptian radio as a child and confesses her crush on Omar Sharif.
Music is the obvious bridge between the two peoples, deepening when Dina coaxes Tewfiq into singing the Arabic song he once sang to his now-deceased wife. There’s more rapprochement when Simon, staying the night with Itzik and his resentful wife Iris, soothes their crying baby with a lovely little half-tune on his clarinet, disarming Iris’s hostility on the spot and leading to the couple’s reconciliation after an earlier blow-up.
Curiously, that little tune is emblematic of the less obvious bridge that binds these people together: inertia. Simon wrote the beginning to his concerto a while ago, but he has no special desire to continue or finish his composition, no matter if people keep telling him it’s damn good. Dina broke up with her husband sometime back, once had ambitions of becoming a dancer in her Tel Aviv days, and doesn’t know why she stays in this in this one bus-stop town. Tewfiq is in no special hurry to move on from sorrowing over his family tragedies, and Itzik and Iris’s upward immobility, quarreling, and reconciliation seem to be in an endless loop.
Most absurd is the Telephone Guy, who stands vigil at the outdoor pay phone night after night, waiting for his long-gone girlfriend to ring him up.
Like a boring family get-together, The Band’s Visit has time to coast through a recital from Itzik’s father-in-law on how he and his wife bonded over the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime.” The livin’ is easy in this cumulatively powerful musical, and tempo is certainly not rushed under David Cromer’s deft direction. But there’s nothing lazy about the way Scott Pask’s scenic design slickly whisks us from location to location, indoors and out, with a turntable to speed up the skaters. I half expected a bus to ease onto the stage when it came time for the band to depart.
There’s unquestionable DNA from the 2007 film in the current tour, with Sasson Gabay returning to his award-winning role of Tewfiq and his son Adam Gabay scooping up a smaller plum as the painfully shy Papi. Sasson established admirable chemistry with Chilina Kennedy opposite him as Dina, absolutely definitive, but 12 years after that film, the age gap between him and his leading became conspicuous. If Tewfiq is so tentative and unwilling, why doesn’t Dina hasten to go after the younger bucks who might be more receptive and responsive?
More problematic on opening night was Sasson’s energy shortage and Kennedy’s tendency to mute her sassiness to be more compatible. I’ll need to read the script or watch the film to get the full gist of their Omar Sharif intimacies. On the other hand, when Kennedy gets to belt and vamp on “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different,” she shows us that there’s a tender, sensuous side to the tough and brusque sabra she first reveals at her café. And even at low volume, Sasson’s restrained emotion comes through powerfully when he sings “Itgara’a” in a cappella Arabic.
Pleasant surprises come from the humbler members of the supporting cast as Papi’s panic attack on a blind date at the roller rink becomes a “Papi Hears the Ocean” showstopper for Adam Gabay, and Mike Cefalo comes vividly to life as The Telephone Guy with a potently plaintive “Answer Me.” Throughout this intermission-less treat, Yazbek’s score shuttles between familiar showtune style and Arabian exotica, percolating with pluckings from a lute-like darbouka (Roger Kashou), a mandolin-like oud (Ronnie Malley), and – what truly does boil over here – the pounding of Arabic percussion (Shai Wetzler).
Given Haled’s cool Chet Baker proclivities and his brash breaches of police decorum, we shouldn’t be surprised that when Joe Joseph sings “Haled’s Song About Love” to calm Papi’s panic attack and supply him with encouragement, he sports the hip jazzy sound of early Frank Sinatra, late Baker, and contemporary Seth MacFarlane. Took me by surprise, because it’s so smoothly different from everything else we hear. Spoiler: it definitely works when Joseph sings it, with a kind of Zachary Levi charm.
Both Kennedy (Beautiful) and the elder Gabay (Band’s Visit) have starred in Broadway productions, albeit in replacement casts, so the top-tier quality of this touring edition begins at the top – when the co-stars aren’t allowing their energies to flag. Small and relatively quiet with its nine-piece instrumental ensemble, this Yazbek-Moses gem manages to cover a fairly wide swathe of Israeli life. We get perceptive sectors on midlife yearnings and regrets, bachelor urges and trepidations, and the simmering cauldron of domesticity. With Pomme Koch as Itzik and James Rana as Simon, the two knowing husbands we see onstage, the top-tier quality extends far and deep.