It’s one of the most common themes found in Broadway musicals: a culturally stagnating town is rejuvenated when an outsider arrives on the scene, affecting everyone in the process. You’ve seen this device in such shows as The Music Man, 110 In the Shade, Footloose, and The Sound of Music, to name but a few. But never has that formula worked better than in The Band’s Visit, the Tony-Award winning musical about a misdirected Egyptian band that arrives in a culturally desolate Israeli town only to magically revive its residents through the power of love and of music. The national tour of the show, which began by playing Off-Broadway in 2016, arrived in Los Angeles on November 30 for a three-week run at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. We were there to see it and to also attend a special event the following day at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel that featured interviews with four of the show’s cast as well as to hear performances by the show’s extraordinary band of on-stage musicians.
The Band’s Visit was an unlikely winner of the 2018 Tony for Best Musical because it’s really an anti-musical. There are no rousing production numbers, no acts of violence, no sweeping romances, and no real conflict. It’s just a quiet show with an underlying premise that emphasizes people communicating on a personal level without the interference of borders, be they geopolitical or cultural. Who would have thought that a story that featured characters from such long-standing opposing factions like Egypt and Israel would not only be bereft of political and cultural conflict, but which showed that they had more in common than they had differences? The Band’s Visit returns to the kind of shows Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt used to write, such as The Fantasticks and 110 In the Shade, each of which exhibited the same elements of magic and warmth, small shows about people and their relationships, without resorting to typecasting.
The recent passing of Stephen Sondheim still hovers over the Broadway world like a shroud, which made The Band’s Visit a show that exemplifies Sondheim’s out-of-the-box thinking about what made a Broadway musical effective and special. Based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 screenplay, the story tells of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, a traveling group of Egyptian musicians, who are stranded at a Tel Aviv bus station when neither their cultural attache nor their chartered bus shows up. As a result, the orchestra’s leader, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, decides to take a public bus to their destination, the city of Petah Tikvah, but due to a mishearing by the bus station’s ticket clerk, they end up in the isolated village of Bet Hatikva, where they are forced to spend the night until the next bus arrives the following morning. Due to the efforts of Dina, a sympathetic cafe owner, the band members are taken in as guests for the night by the other cafe patrons.
The idea of stranded travelers who are taken in by hospitable strangers in a foreign town was most recently used in Come From Away, another Tony-Award winning musical, but in The Band’s Visit, it’s the visitors who make the greater impact on their hosts rather than the other way around.
Sasson Gabay, who originated the role of Tewfiq in the 2007 film, returned to play the part in the musical and gives a deeply moving performance. At the press event, Gabay, who was born in Iraq but grew up in Israel, told us, “In a way, this character was with me all the time. We did it in 2007 and it was highly acclaimed; we won many festivals and awards, so it was kind of career changing for me. In a way, it accompanied me, this role. In 2010, the producer of the musical approached me about doing it on Broadway, which to me was a crazy idea, but I politely said yes (laughs). After eight years, they produced it and I was so curious to see how they could make a musical out of it. The film was so human, with a very small budget – and I was really amazed how they could take this delicate film and turn it into a delicate musical, which is not a typical Broadway musical. Everything works with the same aroma of the movie. Of course, I had matured during these years, as a person and as an actor, and I think I bring more weight to the character than I did when I was younger.”
Playing Dina in the national tour is Janet Dacal, an extraordinarily beautiful Cuban-born actress who combines the sensuality of Brazilian star Sonia Braga with a purringly ravishing soprano that resembles that of the late Eartha Kitt. “Dina’s encounter with Tewfiq is something that she’s been yearning for for a very long time, an authentic, real, human exchange,” Dacal told VC On Stage. “It’s more than a physical connection, it’s intellectual. So because of that, she’s able to be seen in a way that she hasn’t been seen by the people of her own town.”
Through the course of their evening together, Dina and Tewfiq share an affinity for Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and actor Omar Sharif (in the captivating song, “Omar Sharif”), with Tewfiq sparking a tender memory that Dina hasn’t thought about in a long time. “Because of that unexpected exchange, she starts to open up,” Dacal said.
In the show, the villagers of Bet Hatikva have lost their own traditions, their cultural lives now wrapped up in anything that is American. The main recreational activity in town is a roller rink, in which skaters skate to a disco version of Bobby Hebb’s 1967 hit “Sunny.” Other American pop songs are invoked in scenes, such as “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” But in scene after scene, the members of the Egyptian orchestra help bring the native musical culture back to the town, which has a curative effect on their problems, healing a squabbling married couple (Clay Singer and Kendal Hartse), a shy young man (Coby Getzug) afraid to approach a girl he likes, a crying baby that won’t go to sleep, another young man (Joshua Grosso) who has been waiting at a public telephone for months for his girlfriend to call him, and most of all, cafe owner Dina (Dacal), who is desperately reaching out for a human connection, who she finally finds in Tewfiq.
“I think the whole piece is magical,” Janet Dacal told us. “When you allow yourself to experience something different and new, you don’t know how it can affect you, and that’s what happens in the course of this evening. The locals get to experience the music and the culture that maybe they haven’t opened themselves up to and it triggers something in them that may seem very minimal and small but it is profound.”
In return, Dina’s effect on Tewfiq triggers an emotional release in him as well, revealing highly traumatic events in his own life that have left him detached and emotionally resistant. The connection between the two occurs in an extraordinarily beautiful moment in a local “park” (actually just a bench placed out in the desert), in which he shows her how he conducts his orchestra and she mimics his arm motions.
If the very human story depicted in The Band’s Visit can be seen as a painting, the on-stage orchestra serves as the palette of colors with which it is painted. The music played by the members of the on-stage seven-piece band, which includes conventional orchestral instruments like clarinet, cello, and violin, combined with Arabic instruments like the twelve-string oud, and the crisp percussion of the bongo-like darbouka, float in and out of every scene, either appearing on the periphery to accent dialog or featured in between-scene interludes. Even the band’s powder-blue uniforms, which one villager likens to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” outfits, brighten up the drab desert hamlet.
The songs, which were composed by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) are intoxicating, scored to allow the orchestra members to improvise, utilizing traditional Middle-Eastern tropes that give the show its rich atmosphere.
The cast includes Ventura County native Coby Getzug, who plays Papi, a cafe worker who learns how to overcome his anxiety around females with the help of band member Haled’s (Joe Joseph) prompting, in a touchingly funny scene at the roller skating arena. Getzug talked about his character by saying, “I think there’s something really beautiful about choosing to connect, even though it might be easier to retreat. I think there’s beauty in the simple act of leaning forward instead of leaning away.”
“Leaning forward” is one of the overriding themes in the show, for its characters as well as for the audience. Due to the show’s understated, droll humor and the deliberateness of the dialog, audience members are drawn into the intimate atmosphere of this quietly profound show in a way that, in effect, reduces the size of the theater to that of the Off-Broadway venue where it got its start.
The other main attribute of The Band’s Visit is its singularity as a uniquely attractive musical, delightfully different in its story and its music, while at the same time, delivering a message of unity, love, and humanity that gives hope to a world that has become increasingly political and polarized. As Dina sings in “Something Different,” “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.” The Band’s Visit shows that lyric’s effect on not just the villagers of Bet Hatikva, but on anyone who sees this enchanting musical.
The Band’s Visit plays through December 19 at the Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com.