Theater Review: “The Band Visit” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Sasson Gabay (Tewfiq) and Janet Dacal (Dina) in “The Band’s Visit” at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Evan Zimmerman

The North American tour of the award-winning musical “The Band’s Visit” returns 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 was widely acclaimed on Broadway in 2017 after being a successful Off-Broadway production. It is one of four musicals to have won the unofficial “Big Six” Tony Awards (it has won 10 in total): Best Musical, Best Book, Best Music, 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 numerous awards.

You just wanted to savor the sweet, bittersweet flavor that the musical left in your heart.

This production stars acclaimed New York musical actress Janet Dacal as Dina and Israeli actor Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq, reprising his role from the film. The plot begins at an Israeli bus station in Tel Aviv in 1996. Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra attempts to travel to the city of Petah Tikvah, but the clerk mistakenly gives them tickets for the small desert town of Bet Hatikva. When they arrive they are stuck at least until another bus can get there the next day. Some townspeople open their homes to the group, giving them food, shelter, and friendship. A relationship between the conductor, Tewfiq (Gabay), and one of the town’s women, Dina (Dacal), is central to the storyline.

It’s not a traditional musical with big production numbers with dozens of “Gypsies” in shiny costumes. The songs here are like poems sung to music. They tell their story, and then it’s all too brief, wonderful interludes with just the right ingredients to fill our senses. Like a seven-course dinner, it’s up to the next, wonderful flavor.

It’s a show where the characters often don’t have much to say, but their souls become visible with just a few words, perhaps a brief song, and wonderfully subtle acting, with one exception. Dina’s character wears her heart on her sleeve and contrasts perfectly with Tewfiq who only briefly reveals his own heartaches. In the process, we see how differences can blur and finding common bonds can happen even in two disparate groups. It is also a story of the importance of music in all of our lives and our need for friendship.

Alongside Dina and Tewfiq are a wonderful cast of characters. Haled (Ali Louis Bourzgui) is the band’s ladies’ man and trumpeter who enjoys seducing women with “My Funny Valentine.” There’s Israeli Itzik (Clay Singer), who is unemployed with an unhappy, grieving wife, Iris (Kendal Hartse). Simon (James Rana) is the clarinetist whose concerto only has the prelude, but this musical interlude mesmerizes those who listen. We see Haled’s befriended Grandpa (Coby Getzug) longing to talk to Julia (Layan Elwazani) who is just as shy as he is.

With them, 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), Grandpa’s arrogant friend. Anna ((Ariel Reich) is the very willful object of Zelger’s affections. Camal (Yoni Avi Battat, who also plays a mean fiddle in the show), is the frustrated member of the group who wants to let the embassy know Finally, The Telephone Guy (Joshua Grosso) who fights 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 discreet. The conductor is a man of little words and hidden emotions. When Tewfiq opens up a little, Gabay lets us see into the soul of man.

Dina de Dacal is sensual, stubborn and insightful. She has a wonderful time reminiscing about her childhood with Tewfiq in ‘Omar Sharif’. Shortly after, there is a verbal confrontation with her ex at a local hangout in front of the bandleader. Most memorable is “Something Different,” a song that lets us know about his attraction to Tewfiq as the uptight Egyptian sings a song he sang to his wife when they first met. Tewfiq gave her some rudimentary conducting lessons, and Dacal uses them in a way no conductor would imagine to express Dina’s own aspirations.

Bourzgui catches your eye as Haled. The character embodies the story of his number, “Haled’s Song About Love”. Bourzgui captures Haled’s confidence, but also lets us see, briefly, a less happy side of his young life.

Itzik, portrayed with sympathy by Singer, is perhaps a simple character. He is unemployed with pay, loves his child and his wife, Iris. He has learned to allow his wife moments of frustration but seems to have no desire to improve her life. Itzik still has dreams, especially for his child, which can be heard in “Itzik’s Lullabye”. Hartse brings understanding to Iris.

We never doubt that Papi from Getzug is the complete opposite of Haled. Grandpa is shy and confused around 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”. This is another song that talks about the primitive basis of music and the emotions it can evoke. Near the end, Grosso’s fun and bewildering Telephone Guy finally opens his heart in the sweet, simple love song, “Answer Me.”

The heart of this show is the band’s music. It was hard to tell when the actors were performing and which “hidden musicians” were on stage. On stage with Battat were Wick Simmons on cello; Brian Krock on clarinet, saxophone and flute; Roger Kashou on the darbouka and the riq; Kane Mathis on oud and guitar; and Shai Wetzer on drums and Arabic percussion. Backstage, bandleader Adrian Ries is on keyboard and Mark Ziegler on electric and acoustic bass.

Cromer’s management is extremely creative. The figures move on a turntable, symbolic of how life moves around us often effortlessly until it stops. Dramatic moments unfold on a fixed stage like photos in an album. Cromer allows the musical theme – that it is the universal language – to flow through the theater like the waves of the ocean.

Scott Pask’s scenic design takes us circularly from place to place – each venue has just enough set to tell its own story about the location and the people there – from the popular roller rink from the city to an austere bench in a park. Sarah Laux’s costume design helps reflect each character’s personality, from the bespoke police gang uniforms to the gauzy, form-fitting dress Dina wears when she takes Tewfiq around town. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design is one of the best. As someone who ran the lights, I enjoyed the evening scenes the most. You can see everything clearly, but the darkness is still there. Kai Harada’s sound design is so good you can’t tell when the music is on stage, behind the curtain, or pre-recorded.

Patrick McCollum’s choreography may not be obvious. There is no chorus line, but the actors must move around the revolving stage. The ice rink scene expresses the clumsiness of Papi and Julia and the seduction of Zelger and Anna.

Again, it’s a show about music, and under the guidance of musical supervisors, Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow, and with orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi, the sound of the show is hypnotic.

When “The Band’s Visit” ended, it did so with one last band song. At first it seemed to end too abruptly. Then it just seemed like eating a sumptuous Belgian chocolate at the end of a fantastic meal. You just wanted to savor the sweet, bittersweet flavor that the musical left in your heart.

Duration: 1h40 without intermission.

Tip: 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 more 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.

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