Stage Door Review
The Band's Visit
Saturday, September 21, 2019
music & lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses, directed by David Cromer
David Mirvish, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto
September 18-October 20, 2019
Dina: “There’s two kinds of waiting
There’s the kind where you're expecting something new
Or even strange
But this kind of waiting, you keep looking off out into the distance
Even though you know the view is never going to change”
The Band’s Visit won ten Tony Awards in 2017 including Best Musical. Despite this, the musical with music and lyrics by David Yazbek to a book by Itamar Moses could hardly be more different from what most people imagine under the category “Broadway musical”. There is no plot, there are no production numbers, there are no showcase songs, the dialogue in broken English includes long silences and the overall mood is reflective and melancholy. It is it precisely these differences that make the musical so remarkable and so realistic. What The Band’s Visit does have that far too many musical’s lack are a series of complex, true-to life characters who more often than not express their feelings through subtext rather than speech or even song. It is a gentle, low-key tale of the accidental meeting of two groups of different people and how they come to appreciate each other despite their differences. All this is told to Yazbek’s gorgeous score imbued with Middle Eastern harmonies and rhythms.
The musical is based on an award-winning Israeli film of the same name from 2007 directed by Eran Kolirin. Set in 1996 it concerns eight men of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who have been invited to perform at an Arab cultural centre in Petah Tikva, Israel, a city of nearly 250,000 that is 10.6 km from Tel Aviv. No one has come to meet them at the Tel Aviv bus station where they arrived, so their leader Tewfiq Zakaria (Sasson Gabay) decide they will buy their own tickets to Petah Tikva. Unfortunately, since Arabic has no “P” in its alphabet and substitutes “B” in transcribing foreign words, the band through a misunderstanding buys tickets for the small fictional village of Beit Hatikva (called “Bet Hatikva” in the musical) in the middle of the Negev Desert.
Once the band arrives in Beit Hatikva and realizes its mistake, it is told there no more buses that day and that there are no hotels. Dina (Chilina Kennedy) the owner of the town’s principal café decides that she and some of her friends will billet the band until the next morning. From this point on the musical follows the lives of Dina, Tewfiq and several of the other Egyptian and Israeli characters over the course of the evening.
Simon (James Rana), is concerned with a clarinet concerto he has started but never finished. He stays with Itzik (Pomme Koch), a worker at Dina’s café, Itzik’s wife, baby and father-in-law. Itzik and his wife burst into an argument about Itzik’s failure to seek better employment.
Haled (Joe Joseph), the most outgoing member of the band goes to the local skating rink with Papi (Adam Gabay), another of Dina’s workers. Papi has a crush on a very glum young woman but does not know how to woo her. Haled teaches him how.
The pair we want to know about most are Dina and Tewfiq. Gradually, we and they hear about each other’s pasts and the two after several false starts to find anything in common, finally discover they both love the early movies of Omar Sharif. In the midst of this conversation, Dina, who was once married, begins to realize that she is attracted to Tewfiq, who was also once married, and would like to go back to Alexandria with him.
Punctuating these glimpses into the characters’ lives are scenes of a young man (Mike Cefalo) who has been waiting every night for months by a pay telephone for his girlfriend to call him. When anybody asks him if she’s called, he answers, “Not yet, but soon”. The young man thus becomes an embodiment of the entire village that is waiting in vain for something good to happen.
The Band’s Visit is not filled with grand emotions of fantastic people but rather with the quiet feelings of ordinary people. Yazbek and Itamar assume we know that Egyptians and Israelis are traditional enemies, so the topic is never raised. Instead, the initial standoffishness of the Israelis and the acute embarrassment of the Egyptians conveys the subtext of distrust between the two peoples. Gradually, individuals from the two groups begin to bond over common events in life they have experienced. They also bond over their love of music, but Yazbek and Itamar are aware that bonding over music is a cliché and so merely show it occurring without spelling it out.
If The Band’s Visit does not have a plot what it does have instead is an array of humble, relatable characters who are simply trying to get on win life and make the best of an awkward situation. By the end the situation is no longer awkward and we have come to know the characters from both groups so well we are sorry to see them separate again. Such naturalness and subtlety of mood and character is rare in traditional music theatre and you will exit the theatre cherishing the brief time we were vouchsafed to experience these other lives.
Director David Cromer recognizes the virtue of the musical’s low-key nature and wisely does nothing to try to punch up its comedy to make it funnier or emphasize its melancholy to make it sadder. Cromer has rightly allowed the musical to proceed at a slow pace that builds in intensity the more the characters of both groups begin to understand each other. This commonality of feeling is expressed in the final chorus, “Answer me”, the only only chorus in the musical in which all of the Egyptians and Israelis sing together.
This is a musical that depends as much on the nuanced acting of its performers as it does on their singing. Fortunately the touring production visiting Toronto has an ensemble cast gifted in both. Chief among the cast is Canada’s own Chilina Kennedy, last seen here in a knockout performance as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in 2017. Kennedy is so different as the brusque, unhappy Dina of The Band’s Visit it is hard to believe she is the same actor who played the bright, eager Carole of the earlier show. Kennedy perfectly gradates Dina’s transition from mild contempt for the lost band members to sympathy for their foolish situation to a strong attraction to Tewfiq.
Since 2017 Kennedy’s voice, which has always been full and rounded but adaptable to all genres, has become darker and richer. She produces an absolutely luscious sound in Dina’s two main songs “Omar Sharif” and especially in “Something Different”, a song that could become a classic, where Dina realizes that she may be falling in love.
The tour has scored a casting coup in having the Israeli actor Sasson Gabay play Tewfiq. Gabay played the same role in the original movie and won an Ophir Award among others for his performance. As with Kennedy, the broken English he uses to communicate reveals a subtext of deep sorrow that underlies Tewfiq’s gently authoritarian nature now compromised by the band’s embarrassing mistake. Yazbek introduces his songs in unusual ways in the musical and one is to have Tewfiq sing a much-loved Arabic song upon which Dina’s song “Something Different” becomes a commentary. It’s just a pity that Yazbek does not let Tewfiq sing more of his song since it is through this that Gabay gives us a glimpse of the once contented man Tewfiq used to be.
Papi is treated as a hopelessly nebbishy figure until he explains in the lovely, soulful song “Papi Hears the Ocean” why it is that he is so awkward about love and women. Adam Gabay, son of Sasson Gabay, plays the role so well that we are astonished to hear such feeling emerge from a character we had previously regarded as just a fool.
While almost all of the musical is written in the style of Middle Eastern music, at least one song is not. That is called simply “Haled’s Song About Love” that concludes with the lines, “You realize you can’t get nearer / And there’s nowhere you don’t meet”. Joe Joseph plays Haled with comic suavity as a consciously handsome guy who has only two pick-up lines. Haled likes to croon Rodgers and Hart’s song “My Funny Valentine”, but Joseph smoothly delivers Haled’s own love song as if it were another crooner classic. Indeed, the song is so attractive it may become one.
The epitome of the musical’s theme that first impressions can wrongly lead us to disregard people is the Telephone Guy. We hear nothing from the lovesick wretch until he sings the achingly tender song “Answer Me”. As Adam Gabay does with Papi, Mike Cefalo does with the Telephone Guy. The sweetness of Cefalo’s voice and the passion of his delivery contradict our previous opinion of the character. In the brilliant moment when Yazbek has the whole cast take up the song, we realize that the Telephone Guy’s longing we may have ridiculed is actually shared by all the characters. What we might have thought of as hopelessly foolish may really be the determination not to give up hoping.
If you’re looking for a musical with outrageous comedy, larger-than-life characters, kick-lines or spot-lit solo turns, The Band’s Visit is not for you. If, however, you’re longing for a beautifully crafted musical that quietly celebrates the ability of ordinary people to overcome their differences and realize how their common humanity unities them, then The Band’s Visit will bring you not momentary thrills but a glowing warmth that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Chilina Kennedy as Dina and Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq; Chilina Kennedy as Dina and the Band; the ensemble of The Band’s Visit; Chilina Kennedy as Dina and Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq. © 2019 Matthew Murphy.
For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.