Set in a peaceful town in the Middle East, “The Band’s Visit,” is a highly acclaimed musical that is now touring over 30 cities in the United States through August 2020. It tells the story of a chance encounter between a group of Egyptian musicians who lose their way en route to a performance, and the people of a small Israeli desert town who offer them a place to stay for the night.
In the words of composer David Yazbek in an interview with Josh Rogosin on NPR’s Tiny Desk, “The Band’s Visit” is about “hope and faith and silence and music.” It is also (like a good children’s story) a comic adventure with deep archetypal underpinnings.
Its story is, in many ways, a hand-me-down from common ancestors. Borrowed from a 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, which itself was inspired by a vision, the plot evokes the Roman myth of Aeneas and Dido and the Christian story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. The ancient narrative of weary travelers relying on hospitality from strangers is probably found in all cultures. To enjoy it, however, you can forget all this and just sit for 90 minutes imagining yourself in the concrete, sand-blown town of Bet Hatikva.
Significantly, although set in Israel and featuring members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra as principal characters, the play avoids politics. That is, unless you count the occasional gentle twinging of tensions for humorous effect or consider Broadway Tonys to be a political issue.
In June 2018, the Broadway production of the Band took ten Tony awards.
This reviewer saw the touring production given at Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, featuring Sasson Gabay as band leader Tewfiq, and Chilina Kennedy as café-owner Dina. While extremely well done overall, the production suffered from one minor defect: in an early scene where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra learns that one of the hosts, Avrum, has played music professionally, the characters begin singing the Gershwin tune, “Summertime,” but the number drags. Instead of a scene where professional musicians depicting musicians skillfully jam together, they sound like mere amateurs. By the segue into the next number, however, the artists are flexing their chops, and the show takes off.
The performers tread fine lines as they inhabit their characters, and they succeed in the touring production. In depicting the encounter between Dina, a single woman who, though she’s a café owner, believes she has failed in both career and marriage, and Tewfiq, an older man clinging to a vision of a better world, the actors must convey both the characters’ masks and hidden vulnerabilities. Tewfiq must be a little bit uptight, but also respectable and likable.
Gabay, who originated the role in the original, movie version, conveys his character’s contradictions and sensibilities equally well in front of a live audience. Dina is a leader who is secretly very fragile. Kennedy, stepping into the shoes of Broadway’s Katrina Lenk in the role of Dina, pulls off her character’s bravado. Dina is a singing role, too, and Kennedy’s vocal prowess alone justifies the cost of the ticket.
Yazbek’s polyglot score is a wonderful vehicle for talented musicians.
Yazbek’s polyglot score is a wonderful vehicle for talented musicians. Two major numbers, “Haled’s Song About Love,” and “Omar Sharif” are as enjoyable as they are distinct from one another in style and genre. Joe Joseph gives a stunning performance of his song as Haled. In a breathtaking demonstration of restraint, timing, and pitch, he seems to pluck the song from the air as if it were a bud dropped silently from a hidden tree.
“Omar Sharif,” echoing the sacred music of the Hebrew tradition and the poetry of the Qur’an, bears welcome news set to rich, mournful music. Kennedy’s warm, honeyed alto suggestive of the great Lebanese star, Fairouz, and her expressive power do full justice to the song’s depth.
The silence Yazbek mentioned also makes up an element of the show. Many of the characters struggle with a silence they need help breaking. A band member cannot seem to finish writing a short piece of music. A couple cannot connect. A teen boy cannot address even one word to the girl he likes. The characters discover that they can help one another find the notes or words they lacked, ending the silences that kept them locked in frustration. Yet, as the play comes to its close, we see how the quiet in this dull and unsophisticated town has also created a space for new friendships to form, for hospitality to be extended, and for songs and stories to be revisited.
If you have listened to any of the songs from the Grammy-award-winning album of the musical, you are probably already a fan of “The Band’s Visit,” and are considering seeing it live. If you have seen it live, you are going to want to look up the movie, and if you have enjoyed the movie, you might be tempted by the live production.
Either way, this is one show, and Bet Hatikva is one town, that you will go out of your way not to miss.