David Mirvish/The Band’s Visit, music and lyrics by David D, book by Itamar Moses, directed by David Cromer, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Sept. 1 to Oct. 1. Tickets available at mirvish.com.
The Band’s Visit is a sweet show, if a bit on the slow side, with a fabulous Middle Eastern-themed score. The music alone is worth the visit, not to mention the incandescent performance by the great Chilina Kennedy.
The production, based on the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name, cleaned up at the 2018 Tony Awards, winning ten of its eleven nominated categories. The Band’s Visit is only one of four musicals in Broadway history to earn the “Big Six” Tonys — best musical, score, book, direction, actor, and actress, making it one of the most honoured shows ever. In other words, attention must be paid.
The premise is certainly interesting. In 1996, the seven members and their conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrive in Israel from Egypt to help inaugurate the opening of the Arab Cultural Centre in the vibrant city of Petah Tikva. When they go to buy bus tickets at the airport, they are misunderstood and sent to Bet Hatikva, a nowhere town in the Negev desert. The burden of the plot is what happens when the band spends a day and a night with the bored citizens of Bet Hatikva.
Because there is no hotel in Bet Hatikva, the bandleader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and musician Haled (Joe Joseph) are boarded with restaurant owner Dina (Kennedy). Dina’s worker Itzik (Pomme Koch) puts up Camal (Ronnie Malley) and Simon (James Rana) much to the delight of his father-in-law Avrum (David Studwell) and the dismay of his wife Iris (Kendal Hartse).
To pass the time, Dina takes Tewfiq on a tour, such as it is, of Bet Hatikva, while Haled tags along with Dina’s other worker Papi (Adam Gabay) on his date to the roller skate rink. Another character is the Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) who stations himself at the pay phone every night, waiting for his girlfriend to call. The different personalities and what they reveal about themselves form the basis of Itamar Moses’ gentle story line.
Kennedy’s Dina is world-weary and jaded. The very way she sits and walks and talks exudes the bitterness of a blighted life. Sarcasm is her forte, yet Dina is capable of conveying girlish enchantment when remembering incidents of her past. Kennedy moulds her magnificent voice around the words of her songs with brilliant nuance. She never makes a false move in portraying Dina.
In an interesting bit of casting, Gabay, the original Tewfiq from the movie version, is on board for this production. A much-honoured actor in Israel, Gabay brings to his role the quiet, stately authority that Tewfiq requires. His portrayal is the quintessence of restraint, and is a wonderful contrast to Dina’s sardonic nature. Joseph gives the younger (and randy) Haled the romantic and humorous turn the character needs. The other performers, while less developed in character, nonetheless make strong impressions as to who and what they are.
And then there is the wonderful music. Five members of the band get to play three traditional Arabic numbers while the scenery shifts, and Ronnie Malley on the oud and Roger Kashou on the Arabic drum darbouka are particularly accomplished earning big applause for their prowess. Tony Bird (violin), George Crotty (cello) and Evan Francis (clarinet) are also gifted musicians. The show ends with the concert of classical Arabic music that the seven band members give when they finally reach Petah Tikva, and they bring down the house.
Along the way, composer/lyricist David Yazbek has given us a smooth Chet Baker-like love ballad for Haled, a gorgeous lullaby in English and Arabic for Itzik and Camal, a funny song about awkward romance for Papi, a joyous song about life for Avrum, Itzik, Simon and Camal, along with a host of interesting tunes, from the simple up and down cadence of the Telephone guy, to Dina’s haunting memories of time past. And mercifully, there is not one soft rock song in the whole show, a style of music which dominates the musicals of today. No wonder the cast album won the 2019 best musical theatre Grammy. Kudos to Jamshied Sharifi for the orchestrations and Rick Bertone for musical direction.
While the production values of the show are less than stellar —in fact, rather dull in set designer Scott Pask’s attempt to show the plain white desert buildings with their satellite dishes — the music and characters lift up the show. Similarly, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting with its shadow play is also not particularly inspiring. Sarah Laux’s crisp light blue uniforms for the band do catch the eye, however.
The Band’s Visit is one of those musicals where the music actually makes the show.