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BWW Review: Israeli Star Sasson Gabay Revisits His Film Role in Broadway's THE BAND'S VISIT

The last time an actor appeared in a Broadway musical playing a role he had previously essayed on film, it was 1983, when Anthony Quinn opened in the revival of ZORBA. Sharing that unusual distinction with him now is Israeli actor Sasson Gabay who has taken over as leading man of this past season's 10-time Tony winning musical, THE BAND'S VISIT.

BWW Review: Israeli Star Sasson Gabay Revisits His Film Role in Broadway's THE BAND'S VISIT
Sasson Gabay and Katrina Lenk
(Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

It was 2007 when Gabay appeared on the screen as Tewfiq, the soft-spoken conductor with a troubled past who leads an Egyptian police orchestra which is headed to play a concert at an Arab cultural center in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva. Through a language miscommunication, they end up taking a bus to the fictional village of Bet Hatikvah, a desolate desert locale.

Once arriving, they're informed of their error by Dina, a former dancer, now owner of a run-down café that serves as the uneventful village's gathering spot. Lonely and bored with her lot in life, Dina, dryly replies to Tewfiq's inquiry about the cultural center, "No. Not culture, not Israeli culture, not Arab, not culture at all."

As with director/screenwriter Eran Kolirin's work, Itamar Moses' graceful, simmering-with-subtext book and David Yazbek's captivating score, which filters Israeli and Arabic styles into plot-and-character theatre music, gently tells how cultures mix and understandings are achieved when several of Bet Hatikvah's residents take in the stranded travels whose proper bus doesn't leave until the next morning.

The main focus is on the evening Tewfiq and Dina spend getting acquainted, as she grows fascinated with this quiet, soulful man as he hesitantly opens up to her while keeping a respectful distance.

Katrina Lenk, who opened in THE BAND'S VISIT both on Broadway and in the musical's previous Off-Broadway run with the Atlantic Theatre Company, and who recently won a Tony for her efforts, continues to give an enthralling performance, playing Dina as a complex woman flourishing with intelligence and sensuality, longing to turn her life around.

Also awarded with a Tony, Tony Shaloub, an actor well known to American audiences for playing warm, sensitive men, opened as Tewfiq both on Broadway and off. Though more than 20 years older than Lenk, Shaloub's soft features and modest presence made the age difference between them seem not so great, and their story took on the essence of a woman offering intimacy to a man who desires her, but who may not be ready due to unhealed emotional wounds.

Gabay, however, is a bit older than Shaloub, and his sterner features and wearier presence create a greater age difference between the two characters. Though Lenk's Dina shows no less interest in the man, the fascination he returns is more of a fatherly admiration. He certainly conveys longing, and in time the audience learns of its nature, but his avoidance of her flirtations appears to come from a man who has decided that a certain aspect of his life is over.

BWW Review: Israeli Star Sasson Gabay Revisits His Film Role in Broadway's THE BAND'S VISIT
Sasson Gabay (right) and Company
(Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

This more guarded approach to the character makes it all the more heartbreaking when Tewfiq, at Dina's insistence, sings her an old Arabic song and shows her how he conducts the orchestra. We see music as the only part of Tewfiq's life that brings him comfort and the feeling that he is in control. It is truly aching to watch.

The rest of the Broadway company remains intact from opening night, with David Cromer's Tony-winning direction treating each fragment of life depicted with loving, compassionate realism.

Another Tony winner, Ari'el Stachel, continues to delight as the trumpet-playing self-styled ladies' man Haled, who asks every attractive woman he meets if she knows Chet Baker and then launches into a few bars of "My Funny Valentine."

And there's great empathy in the scenes between new parents Itzik (John Cariani) and Iris (Kristen Sieh), as the father's inability to keep a job has put a strain on their marriage.

THE BAND'S VISIT begins and ends with the modest description of it's story, "Once not long ago group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important."

But what is very important, is that a small, intelligently written musical that speaks to quiet human emotions can still find an audience on Broadway.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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