Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Band's Visit
Set in 1996, the plot centers on a group of Egyptian musicians–the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra–who find themselves stranded for a night in a barren Israeli town after they mistakenly take the bus to the wrong city. They were invited to perform at the Arab Cultural Center in the town of Petah Tikvah, but, unfortunately, after arriving in Tel Aviv and arranging bus tickets, they mispronounce the name as Bet Hatikvah, which just happens to be a small, desolate town in the Israeli desert, and so find themselves on the wrong bus. With no buses to take them to Petah Tikvah until the next day, and no place for them to stay, they are forced to mingle with the friendly locals who offer to feed them and put them up for the night. As different religions and nationalities mix, the band members and locals realize that, while they come from different countries and different backgrounds, they also have a lot in common.
Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin, the Tony-winning book by Itamar Moses does a good job depicting and fleshing out the sympathetic characters. David Yazbek's Tony-winning score features lyrics that are comical, charming, romantic and savvy, with beautiful and rich music inspired by the klezmer and Arabic and Israeli musical styles.
The touring cast does an exceptional job depicting these identifiable characters. Tewfiq, the band's conductor, is a man of a few well-thought-out words who, like almost every other character in the show, isn't perfect and has a troubled history. Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the film, beautifully shows how you can create a fully fleshed out character without saying a lot. When the band arrives in town they meet Dina, who runs a local café, and over the course of the evening, Dina and Tewfiq connect over Egyptian music and an Egyptian film that starred Omar Sharif. Understudy Hannah Shankman does an excellent job depicting this bored woman who also has led a life that didn't go the way she thought it would. She has experienced failed relationships and disappointments. Shankman manages to show how Dina is sure of herself yet also vulnerable, with a stage presence and singing voice that is charismatic and expressive. Gabay and Shankman play off each other very well as these two characters who, while they may appear to be opposites at first, are very much alike.
At the café, the Egyptians also meet Itzik (Clay Singer) and Papi (Coby Getzug), and Itzik allows two of the band members to stay with him, even though that doesn't exactly sit well with his wife (Kendal Hartse). Singer does good work depicting this proverbial man-child whose wife is frustrated by his lack of ambition. Getzug is quite touching as the shy man who doesn't understand how to talk to, let alone romance, women. The bandmember Haled (Joe Joseph), whose main way of flirting with women is to ask if they like the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, since he also plays the trumpet, helps Papi overcome his shyness. Joseph is wonderful as this sure of himself man who we also learn isn't exactly what he seems.
Other locals include Avrum (David Studwell), who sings a beautiful song about how he and his late wife both loved music, and Telephone Guy (Joshua Grosso), who relentlessly waits at a pay phone for hours for his girlfriend to call, even though it's been months since he last heard from her. Grasso's delivery of "Answer Me" is stunningly beautiful.
This is a small show, one that meanders along with understatement in a conversational way; there are several moments of silence which may alienate some theatregoers who are looking for a more upbeat and traditional musical theatre production. While the music weaves in and out of the dialogue to further flesh out the characters and their connections with each other, I have to imagine that some of the nuance of the characters will be lost in the larger venues the tour plays, even though director David Cromer and his gifted cast ensure the subtleties of the characters are richly drawn.
Cromer's staging works incredibly well on the superb set design by Scott Pask that features a turntable and a central large set piece that revolves to quickly and effectively become the several locations in the show. Tyler Micoleau's lighting changes to beautifully depict the harsh bright yellow afternoon desert sun and the cool blue dusk. Sarah Laux's costumes for the locals are, appropriately, as bleak and barren as the desert location where they live, while her band costumes are colorful and force the men to stick out from the Israelis. This is a show with thick accents and sound designer Kai Harada does a serviceable job trying to make the dialogue and lyrics as clear as possible.
While Yazbek's score does have underlying themes centered around traditional Arabic and Israel music, there are also several musical interludes between scenes when the band's actor/musicians perform short musical pieces in a more traditional Arabic style. These on-stage moments are joyous and provide a beautiful connection between the present and past and are played exceptionally well by the band (Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis, Wick Simmons). The fact that it's a style of music most people don't hear daily will open people's eyes to something they may not be familiar with.
With a book that shows our differences aren't so different after all and a score that is like a melodic lullaby that sweeps over you, The Band's Visit is a small, and mostly quiet musical that says a lot with very few words. The idea of people coming to a shared understanding about life and love after conversing with complete strangers who are from a completely different religion and culture is quite moving. In the bleakness, the characters realize there is also the ability to be optimistic, empathetic and hopeful as they speak a common emotional language, which is a beautiful message to hear and something we all can learn from.
The Band's Visit runs through February 13, 2022, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit http://www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, please visit thebandsvisitmusical.com/tour/.
Book: Itamar Moses