Few musicals have delved deeper into insights about the nature of being amid surroundings that can readily feel purposeless and abjectly hopeless. “The Band’s Visit,” which is undoubtedly raised on the shoulders of its stirringly evocative music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has more of the cadence of a methodical play in a distant land, punctuating each respite between the exchange of words with glances and stares accented by a percolating existentialism. Now playing at the Dolby Theatre through Sunday, December 19th, the first national tour of “The Band’s Visit” is a genuinely touching work of art as evidenced by its riveting acting, singing, and onstage instrumentation.
Itamar Moses’ book (inspired by Eran Kolirin’s screenplay of the 2007 film), along with David Cromer’s spectacular staging, and Patrick McCollum’s understated choreography likely won’t be appreciated to the fullest without repeat experiences. “The Band’s Visit,” winner of an astounding 10 Tony Awards in 2018, rewards the patient individual with laughter and thoughts about hope, harmony, and love in the most unexpected, or rather accidental, of locales in “Bet Hatikva” – a fictional town in Israel where apparently nothing happens.
The year is 1996 and a brigade of officer musicians have received an invite from the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikvah, Israel (pronounced almost identically to “Bet Hatikva”) to perform their brand of exhilarating music – which the audience is enraptured by before the very first scene. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by their conductor Colonel Tewfiq (portrayed by Israeli film legend Sasson Gabay), find themselves lost and seemingly stranded instead in “Bet Hatikva” after one of its members, Haled (Joe Joseph), orders bus tickets to the wrong city. Initially, the mishap seems to be a product of language-caused miscommunication but becomes rather fateful. The musical then finds its bearings the rest of the way when the police orchestra arrives at a desolate café owned by the less-than-enthused Dina (Janet Dacal) and her employees Itzik (Clay Singer) and Papi (Coby Getzug). However, after some funny repartee and misunderstandings about directions, and which town they’re actually in, the orchestra receives a semblance of acceptance and understanding.
Still, the musical never quite resolves completely to give the impression everything is going to be copacetic – because it won’t be just like real life. Scott Pask’s scenery and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design are masterfully constructed to underlie bursts of excitement within the bleakness of “Bet Hatikva,” which its residents convey with a sullen cynicism. Songs like “Waiting,” “Welcome to Nowhere,” and “It is What It Is” serve as indications that one can easily settle into a state of learned helplessness, which can double as a warped badge of honor. That said, led by Gabay’s polite and mild-mannered Tewfiq, the status quo is indubitably challenged. Gabay, who depicted the same role in the film and on Broadway, gives a performance made more powerful due to its subtleties. Haled, on the other hand, who, together with Tewfiq, stays the night at Dina’s residence, is a “louder” character. In addition to being a huge Chet Baker fan, he is smitten with every female he approaches. Nevertheless, it’s a contrast that, because of Joe Joseph’s layered mannerisms and impressively warm vocals, works beautifully.
Janet Dacal is mesmerizing as Dina, who, despite being frazzled by the travails and regrets in her life, sees a reawakening upon finding serendipitous common ground between herself and Gabay’s Tewfiq. This is never more evident than during “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different,” thanks to Dacal’s breathtaking voice which soars with joyful expectation out of the dreariness that envelops her. More importantly, the bonding of Dina and Tewfiq highlights a lovely vulnerability, humanity, and co-existence that should always, but sadly doesn’t, epitomize relationships in the strife-ridden Middle East.
Among those exhaustively searching to find more meaning in a place that is bereft of it also includes Itzik, his wife Iris, and his father-in-law Avrum. Clay Singer’s Itzik and Kendal Hartse’s Iris have a marriage characterized by tension and tumultuous fireworks that spill out uncontrollably after a period of happiness. It is a loss starkly felt that seems to be paradoxically exacerbated by their wholesome guest, James Rana’s Simon, who is touching as the clarinet orchestra player who stopped developing his promising concerto due to the burden of life’s responsibilities.
The longing for more keeps these characters going. Whether it’s the timid Papi, played with a charming eccentricity by Coby Getzug, who desperately wants to connect with his crush, and the Telephone Guy (delivered with a relatable wistfulness by Joshua Grosso), who interminably stands in front of the town’s only telephone booth waiting for his girlfriend’s call, we realize that optimism, even if only simmering, will never be completely devastated in “Bet Hatikva.” As the old adage goes, the march, or the beat goes on, which David Studwell’s Avrum, a character considerably more at peace than his counterparts, delightfully proves in “The Beat of Your Heart.”
Truly, hope never perishes in “The Band’s Visit” despite some posturing to the contrary. This Middle Eastern-rooted musical, which ebbs and flows with both percussive vitality and pure tenderness, is a microcosm for the unflagging spirit of people, the desire to understand and be understood, and how an unlikely and ostensibly insignificant happenstance can provide lasting meaning and comfort. At 100 minutes with no intermission, “The Band’s Visit” never needs to rush as it confidently guides its audience through what almost feels like a spiritual journey.
For more information about the “The Band’s Visit,” please visit broadwayinhollywood.com Please be aware that, in order to be admitted inside the Dolby Theatre, one must show proof of full vaccination against Covid-19, a negative PCR test within 72 hours of showtime, or a negative rapid antigen test within 12 hours of showtime.