THEATER REVIEW: “The Band’s Visit” @ Playhouse Square by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 11/24

Once upon a time in Israel, the Egyptian Ceremonial Police Orchestra musicians took the wrong bus. Is this true? Who cares? An intriguing “What happened next” forms the heart of The Band’s Visit now at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace. This Broadway Series show directed by David Cromer, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, won the Tony Awards’ Best Musical (not to mention nine other awards in other categories).

 It deserves it.

Eight band members, led by Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), have a gig in urban Petah Tikvah, but language difficulties cause them to go to the wrong city and so they are stranded overnight in Bet Hatikvah, a sleepy desert village. In the opening song, everyone in Bet Hatikvah sings, “Waiting,” which is what they are doing: Waiting for something, anything to happen. (If you’ve ever driven through small towns in West Texas, New Mexico or Arizona, you know what they mean.)

When local café owner Dina (Chilina Kennedy) sees that the band needs help, she finds them places to spend the night — some with her, some with friends. Like Come From Away, the story shows strangers finding welcome.

The cast makes everything believable. Gabay’s Tewfik vacillates appealingly between confidence and awkwardness as he and Dina become friends.

Kennedy’s charming, mesmerizing stage presence is such that when she looks out into the audience to talk or sing, it’s easy to feel she sees you, cares about you and wants to charm you. She does, especially with “It Is What It Is” and (in delightful tribute to romance) “Omar Sharif.”

We see two workers in Dina’s café — the awkward Papi (Adam Gabay) and Itzik (Pomme Koch) — discover that the strangers give their lives new (and welcome) perspective. Gabay’s young character learns to court a girl and Koch’s learns to negotiate his marriage and extended family.

For the show’s first 60 minutes, recent Baldwin Wallace graduate Mike Cefalo seems to be merely furniture. He’s the poor “Telephone Guy” who stands throughout the show next to the town’s only telephone. His girlfriend in the United States promised to call. He waits and waits. Then, in one of the show’s joyous closing moments, he sings the moving “Answer Me,” and it becomes an anthem for everyone.

There’s more, of course, lots more. Some includes going out at night to party (and roller skate), some involves drinking and looking at the stars, and some brings heart-to-heart sharing and honestly. The result? People discover commonality and the bus comes in the next morning. Nothing changes and everything changes.

Other ensemble cast members include Jennifer Apple as Anna, Marc Ginsburg as Sammy, Kendal Hartse as Iris, Joe Joseph as Haled, Sara Kapner as Julia, Ronnie Malley as Camal, James Rana as Simon, Or Schraiber as Zelger, and David Studwell as Avrum.

The production’s choreography by Patrick McCollum and set design by Scott Pask create an outstanding use of the rotating center stage. It’s a house, a café, a bar, a skating rink, a bus stop. Whatever is needed suddenly appears.

And how about the music? Some members of the Egyptian Police Band seem to play their instruments, others convincingly fake it. The appealing original Tony-winning score sounds authentically Middle Eastern.  Conductor/keyboard player Rick Bertone leads the “real band” (Tony Bird, George Crotty, Evan Francis, Roger Kashou and Ronnie Malley) from a veiled, raised platform above the stage.

BOTTOM LINE: Tonic for the mind and soul. Watching it is like watching a tale from the Thousand and One Nights come to life. Moonlight, romance, music, and longing combine to weave a subtle musical magic in only 90 minutes.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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