The North American Tour of the award-winning musical “The Band’s Visit” has returned to the Kennedy Center. With music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, the musical is based on the Israeli film of the same name with a screenplay by Eran Kolirin. Directed by David Cromer, the musical opened to wide acclaim on Broadway in 2017 after it was a smash Off-Broadway production. It is one of four musicals to win the unofficial “Big Six” Tony Awards (it won 10 total)—Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction in a Musical. The cast album also won a Grammy in 2019. As an Off-Broadway show, it also won many awards.
You just wanted to savor the sweet and the bittersweet flavor the musical left in your heart.
This production stars renown New York musical actress, Janet Dacal as Dina, and Israeli actor, Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq, reprising his role from the film. The plot starts in an Israeli bus station in Tel Aviv in 1996. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt is trying to get to the city of Petah Tikvah, but the clerk mistakenly gives them tickets for the tiny desert town of Bet Hatikva. When they arrive, they are stranded at least until another bus can get there the next day. Some of the townspeople open their homes to the group giving them food, shelter, and friendship. A relationship between the band conductor, Tewfiq (Gabay), and one of the women in the town, Dina (Dacal), is the focus of the storyline.
This is not a traditional musical with big production numbers with dozens of “gypsies” in bright costumes. The songs here are like poems sung to music. They tell their story, and then they are over—brief, wonderful interludes with just the right ingredients to fill up our senses. Like a seven-course dinner, it’s on to the next, wonderful flavor.
This is show where the characters often don’t have a great deal to say, but their souls become visible with just a few words, perhaps a brief song and wonderfully subtle acting, with one exception. The character of Dina wears her heart on her sleeve, and is in perfect contrast to Tewfiq who only briefly reveals his own heartaches. In the process, we see how differences can fade away and finding common bonds can happen even in two disparate groups. It is also a story of the importance of music in all our lives and our need for friendship.
Alongside Dina and Tewfiq are a wonderful array of characters. Haled (Ali Louis Bourzgui) is the ladies’ man and trumpeter of the band who likes to woo women with “My Funny Valentine.” There is the Israeli, Itzik (Clay Singer), who is unemployed with an unhappy and grieving wife, Iris (Kendal Hartse). Simon (James Rana) is the clarinetist whose concerto has just the prelude, but that musical interlude mesmerizes those who listen. We see Papi (Coby Getzug), befriended by Haled, who longs to speak to Julia (Layan Elwazani) who is just as shy as he is.
Along with them are several memorable personalities. Avrum (David Studwell) is Iris’ father who relishes a chance to remember his recently deceased wife. Sammy (Marc Ginsburg) is Dina’s angry ex, Zelger (Billy Cohen), Papi’s cocky friend. Anna ((Ariel Reich) is the very willing object of Zelger’s affections. Camal (Yoni Avi Battat, who plays a mean violin in the show as well), is the frustrated band member who wants to let the Egyptian Embassy know what is happening. Finally, The Telephone Guy (Joshua Grosso) who battles with Camal for the use of the only pay phone in the small town where he has been waiting every night for a month for a call from his girlfriend.
Gabay’s Tewfiq is perfectly understated. The conductor is a man of little words and hidden emotions. When Tewfiq does open up a little, Gabay let’s us see into the man’s soul.
Dacal’s Dina is sensual, headstrong and insightful. She is having a wonderful time reminiscing about her childhood with Tewfiq in “Omar Sharif.” A short time later, there is a verbal confrontation with her ex at a local hangout in front of the conductor. The most memorable is “Something Different,” a song that lets us know of her attraction to Tewfiq while the uptight Egyptian croons a song he sang to his wife when they meet. Tewfiq has given her some rudimentary conducting lessons and Dacal uses them in a way no conductor would imagine in expressing Dina’s own longings.
Bourzgui commands your attention as Haled. The character epitomizes the story line in his number, “Haled’s Song About Love.” Bourzgui captures Haled’s confidence, but then also allows us to view, briefly, a less happy side to his young life.
Itzik, sympathetically portrayed by Singer, may be an uncomplicated character. He is gainfully unemployed, loves his child and wife, Iris. He has learned to allow his wife moments of frustration but seems not to have the desire to improve his life. Itzik still has dreams, especially for his child, which we hear in “Itzik’s Lullabye.” Hartse bring understanding of Iris.
We never doubt Getzug’s Papi is the total opposite of Haled. Papi is shy and befuddled by women which he explains in the humorous “Papi Hears the Ocean.” Studwell as Avrum, Rana as Simon, Battat as Camal, and Singer bring joy and tears as they harmonize in the song, “The Beat of Your Heart.” It is another song that talks about the primitive basis of music and the emotions it can stir. Toward the end, Grosso’s amusing and befuddling Telephone Guy finally opens his heart in the sweet simple love song, “Answer Me.”
The core of this show is the music of the band. It was hard to tell when actors were playing and which were the “hidden musicians” on stage. On stage along with Battat were Wick Simmons on cello; Brian Krock on clarinet, saxophone, and flute; Roger Kashou on darbouka and riq; Kane Mathis on oud and guitar; and Shai Wetzer on drums and Arabic percussion. Offstage, conductor Adrian Ries is on keyboard and Mark Ziegler plays electric and acoustic bass.
Cromer’s direction is extremely creative. The characters move on a turntable, symbolic of how life moves about us often without effort until it stops. The dramatic moments take place on a stationary stage like photos in an album. Cromer allows the musical theme—that it is the universal language—to flow into the theatre like waves from ocean.
Scott Pask’s scenic design takes us circularly from place to place—each locale has just enough set to tell its own story about the location and the people who are there—from the town’s popular roller rink to a stark bench in a park. Sarah Laux’s costume design helps reflect the personality of each character, from the tailored police band uniforms to the gauzy, slinky dress Dina wears when she takes Tewfiq out on the town. The lighting design by Tyler Micoleau is one of the best. As a person who has run lights, I most appreciated the evening scenes. You can see everything clearly, but the darkness is still there. The sound design by Kai Harada is so good you can not tell when the music is on stage, behind the curtain, or prerecorded.
Patrick McCollum’s choreography might not be obvious. There is no chorus line, but the actors have to move on the revolving stage. The scene at the roller rink conveys the awkwardness of Papi and Julia and the seductiveness of Zelger and Anna.
Again, this is a show about music, and under the guidance of music supervisors, Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow, and with the orchestrations of Jamshied Sharifi, the sound of the show is hypnotic.
When “The Band’s Visit” ended it did so with a final song by the band. At first it seemed to end too abruptly. Then it seemed just right, like eating a sumptuous Belgian chocolate at the end of a fantastic meal. You just wanted to savor the sweet and the bittersweet flavor the musical left in your heart.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 10 and up.
“The Band’s Visit” runs through July 17, 2022 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F. Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For information and tickets, go to this link. Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking.