THEATER REVIEW: “The Band’s Visit” @ Playhouse Square by Roy Berko

Through Sunday 11/24

It’s “1996, the Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Police Orchestra, [have] just arrived in Israel, and are waiting in Tel Aviv’s central bus station. They expect to be welcomed by a representative from a local Arab cultural organization, but no one shows up.”

The group’s leader, the quiet Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, decides the group will take the bus and instructs Haled, a younger officer to purchase the group’s bus tickets. At the ticket booth, Haled asks the clerk for a ticket to the city of Petah Tikvah, but due to his Egyptian accent, she misunderstands him and sells him tickets to the isolated desert town of Bet Hatikva, far away from the Jerusalem suburb where the concert is to be held.

Sounds like an interesting tale, but not necessarily one that would provide a plot for a movie and a musical. But it actually is the basis for a well-reviewed Israeli film, and a Broadway musical which won the 2017 Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, and won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Band’s Visit, which is now on stage at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace for a three-week run, opened in November, 2017 and ran through April 7, 2019, racking up a solid 589 performances. While most Broadway musicals hope to break even, the producers of this “small, touching show,” announced in September, 2018 that it had recouped its initial investment of $8.75 million and was on its way to be a major profit maker.

The show has been called “exquisite,” noting that Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) have “created a small, touching show [with] character depth and strong sense of place.” It has been labeled “a Broadway rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups.” It was also praised for its “remarkable and boundlessly compassionate humanism.”

Most definitive is the advice-giving statement, “All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the murmurs, whispers and silences of human existence at its most mundane — and transcendent.”

Don’t go to The Band’s Visit expecting show-stoppers, production numbers, a chorus of singers and dancers. This is a musical drama much in the mold of Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen that tells a story woven together by spoken and sung words, as well as music.

Don’t go expecting a discussion of Arab-Israeli issues and problems. This is a play about people, not political conflicts. It’s about real people, not politicians or heroes or villains.

The show probes ordinary problems of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Non-events. There is angst. Some real. Some dramatically perceived. There are no earth-shattering moments. No solutions. Just an opportunity to examine the human condition within the context of intimate conversations and some well-perceived and memorable music

The cast is excellent. The Egyptian band all play their own instruments. (Don’t run for the exits at the end of the show as there is a wonderful short concert performed by the band after the curtain call.)

Chilina Kennedy inhabits the role of Dina. Sasson Gabay displays just the right character smarts as Tewfiq, the leader of the band. Mike Cefalo, as the Telephone Man, sings the plaintive “Answer Me” with wonderful tenderness. Joe Joseph adds some delightful comic moments as Haled.

Be aware that this is an intimate show which would play better in the cozy Allen or Hanna theatres where the audience could feel they were eavesdropping, rather than in the cavernous Connor Palace, but economics doesn’t allow for that option.

No stars? No, this is not a star vehicle. Regular people playing regular people.

Cleveland connection: The show’s producer, Orin Wolf is a 1997 University School graduate.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Band’s Visit is a slice of life, character-centered show, woven together with spoken and sung words and music, that is filled with caring humanism.  

The Band’s Visit runs through Sun 11/24.  To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

 

 

 

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