Updated: Mar 27, 2022
This Beguiling Musical Whispers Romance and Harmony
Breaking news for theatergoers — It’s time to fall in love again.
One of the most seductive musicals you may ever see landed at Segerstrom Center for the Arts this past Tuesday. Humble, quiet, and honorable, the first thing you see on a projection screen is the show’s theme: “You probably didn’t hear about it…it wasn’t very important.” The show is called “The Band’s Visit,” and its undeniable allure is not of the hard-charging, brightly blaring sort common to box-office extravaganzas.
Instead, this portrait of a single night in a tiny Israeli desert town confirms a lyric that arrives, like nearly everything in this remarkable show, on a breath of reluctantly romantic hope: “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.”
The show captures a special moment in time for a small group of people who accidentally meet in a place that seems like a world away from their Egyptian home. Its roots are in the Israeli desert, the setting for an award-winning movie of the same name by filmmaker Eran Kolirin. Turned into a musical by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, the equally loved result is onstage at Segerstrom Hall through April 3rd.
Directed by David Cromer with an inspired inventiveness that never calls attention to itself, “The Band’s Visit” flows with a joyful insistence of life itself. All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the whispers of human existence at its most transcendent. And, oh yes, be willing to have your heart broken, at least a little. Because “The Band’s Visit,” which stars a magnificent Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay as would-be lovers in a not-quite paradise, is like life in that way, too.
The story is sprung when the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Band board a bus in 1996 for an engagement in the city of Petah Tikva. Thanks to some understandable confusion at the ticket counter, they wind up instead in the flyblown backwater of Bet Hatikva, where the residents — delighted to have something different happen — serenade the musicians with “Welcome to Nowhere,” a musical lesson in proper pronunciation of their B’s and P’s. The next bus out of town doesn’t come until the following morning. So, with no other options, the band’s straight-backed conductor, Tewfiq (Mr. Gabay), reluctantly accepts an offer from the pragmatic café owner Dina (Ms. Dacal) to have his men stay the night with the residents.
They register as unmistakably alien figures there, looking like awkward refugees from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in their powder-blue uniforms (Sarah Laux is the costumer). But out of necessity, curiosity overcomes inherent mistrust as the stranded Arabs and isolated Jews find common ground, at times in the most uncommon ways. As the wary musicians interact with their hosts, their shared stories become a tally of sweet nothings, fortuitous bondings and regretful might-have-beens.
Just how uninteresting is Bet Hatikva? Its residents are happy to tell you, in some of the wittiest songs ever written about being bored. The “B” that begins its name might as well stand for “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.”
Leading the town's civic inventory is Ms. Dacal’s Dina, a cafe proprietor and a wry beauty who clearly doesn’t belong here and just as clearly will never leave. Like her fellow citizens, she sees the defining condition of her life as eternal waiting, a state in which you “keep looking off out into the distance, even though you know the view is never gonna change.”
Above all, the Arabs and Israelis bond over the mighty timbre of their music’s shared roots: Avrum (David Studwell) sings of winning his late wife’s heart with a song ("The Beat of Your Heart"), while Dina and the reluctantly smitten conductor, Tewfiq, connect and almost fall in love over their shared interest in Egyptian movies and music. Papi ( Coby Getzug) explains his romantic anxieties to Haled (Joe Joseph) in "Papi Hears the Ocean," followed by "Haled's Song About Love." Later, Itzik (Clay Singer) sends them to sleep with "Itzik's Lullaby." The characters communicate in their common language of broken English, but really, they talk through music, letting the rhythm speak for whatever’s on their minds.
Delightfully, despite its 10 Tony Awards, “The Band’s Visit” is not one of those typical Broadway blockbuster extravaganzas. Its small moments and subtle charms are quieter and its colors more muted than those of musicals birthed by Sondheim, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein or even Mickey Mouse. And that is a good thing – a very good thing.
This show is, in fact, close to perfect musically. Mr. Yazbek’s quietly simmering score, which inflects Broadway balladry and character songs with a haunting Middle Eastern accent, feels as essential as oxygen, moving wire to wire with a thoroughbred’s confidence. Scott Pask’s revolving set, so fitting for a world in which life seems to spin in an endless circle, captures the sameness of the view, while Tyler Micoleau’s lighting evokes the subliminal changes of perspective stirred by the arrival of strangers.
As for Ms. Dacal, whose wonders have been seen on Broadway in productions like “In the Heights” and “Prince of Broadway,” she is the ideal avatar of this show’s paradoxical spirit, at once coolly evasive and warmly expansive, like the jasmine wind that Dina describes in the breakout ballad “Omar Sharif.”
Listening to Tewfiq sing in Arabic, she wonders, “Is he singing about wishing?” She goes on: “I don’t know what I feel, and I don’t know what I know/All I know is I feel something different.” Mr. Gabay’s melody matches the exquisitely uncertain certainty of the lyrics. That “something different” is the heart-clutching sensation that throbs throughout this miraculous show, as precise as it is elusive, and all the more poignant for being both.
CAST: JANET DACAL as Dina; SASSON GABAY as Tewfiq; JOE JOSEPH as Haled; CLAY SINGER as Itzik; YONI AVI BATTAT as Camal; COBY GETZUG as Papi; JOSHUA GROSSO as Telephone Guy; KENDAL HARTSE as Iris; DAVID STUDWELL as Avrum; BILLY COHEN as Zelger; LAYAN ELWAZANI as Julia; MARC GINSBURG as Sammy; JAMES RANA as Simon; ARIEL REICH as Anna; YONI AVI BATTAT, ROGER KASHOU, BRIAN KROCK, KANE MATHIS and WICK SIMMONS as The Band.
STANDBYS: ALI LOUIS BOURZGUI; RAMIN DOOSTDAR; LOREN LESTER; DANA SALEH OMAR; NICK SACKS; HANNAH SHANKMAN. Dance Captain: HANNAH SHANKMAN; Assistant Dance Captain: ALI LOUIS BOURZGUI.
THE BAND: Conductor/Keyboard ADRIAN RIES; Associate Conductor/Keyboard KELLY THOMAS; Violin YONI AVI BATTAT; Cello WICK SIMMONS; Clarinet/Saxophone/Flute BRIAN KROCK; Darbouka/Riq ROGER KASHOU; Oud/Guitar KANE MATHIS; Electric & Acoustic Bass MARK ZIEGLER; Drums/Arabic Percussion SHAI WETZER; Musician Swing ALEX FARHA; Music Coordinator DEAN SHARENOW; Music Preparation PETER FOLEY; Electronic Music Design BILLY JAY STEIN and HIRO LIDA for Strange Cranium, Inc.
CREW: Director DAVID CROMER; Choreographer PATRICK McCOLLUM; Associate Director SETH SIKES; Associate Choreographer JESSE KOVARSKY; Orchestrations JAMSHIED SHARIFF; Music Director ADRIAN RIES; Music Coordinator DEAN SHARENOW; Additional Arrangements ANDREA GRODY; Music Supervisor ANDREA GRODY & DEAN SHARENOW; Settings SCOTT PASK; Costumes SARAH LAUX; Lighting TYLER MICOLEAU; Hair & Wigs CHARLES G. LaPOINTE; Sound KAI HARADA; Israeli Dramaturg & Dialect Coach ZOHAR TIROSH-POLK; Executive Producers ALLAN WILLIAMS & CHARLIE STONE; Associate Producer STEVEN CHAIKELSON; Company Manager CHRIS DANNER; Production Stage Manager JOHN M. ATHERLAY.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts proudly presents THE BAND’S VISIT, A NEW MUSICAL, music and lyrics by DAVID YAZBEK; book by ITAMAR MOSES; based on the screenplay by ERAN KOURIN. March 22nd through April 3rd, 2022, in Segerstrom Hall, Tuesdays-Fridays 7:30PM; Saturdays 2PM and 7:30PM; Sundays 1PM and 6:30PM. All Covid-19 protocols apply for entry. For tickets to upcoming performances, visit www.scfta.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Evan Zimmerman Murphy and Matthew Murphy