Review: THE BAND'S VISIT at Writers Theatre

The Tony-winning musical runs through March 17.

By: Feb. 18, 2024
Review: THE BAND'S VISIT at Writers Theatre
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About halfway through the 2017 musical THE BAND'S VISIT, an Israeli cafe owner named Dina listens to the singing of an Egyptian policeman as the two sit in the ruins of a park in the middle of the desert. Dina, who does not speak Arabic, cannot understand the literal meaning of the man's song but feels as though she comprehends it emotionally, asking herself, "What's he saying? Is he praying? And why does it get to me?" In other words, how is it that a life so different from hers can have the power to touch her in such a profound way? Thankfully, this question receives its enthusiastic answer in a gorgeously lyrical and profoundly moving new production at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, now running through March 17.

Winner of ten 2018 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, THE BAND'S VISIT tells the story of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, which has been invited to give a concert in the culturally rich Israeli city of Petah Tikvah. But due to a linguistic mix-up (Arabic does not use "p" sounds), the band ends up in the virtually desolate town of Bet Hatikvah. Stuck with their instruments until the next bus out of town, the conductor Tewfiq (Rom Barkhordar) and his colleagues must spend the night with Dina (Sophie Madorsky) and her fellow villagers. What follows is less a plot in the traditional sense and more of a character study of how people from different and historically conflicted walks of life can impact one another in subtle yet substantial ways. 

Director Zi Alikhan has gifted Chicago audiences with a production of THE BAND'S VISIT whose talent and creative execution equal---and may even exceed---those of the Broadway and touring productions. Writers Theatre's relatively smaller size lends itself to the intimacy necessary for the characters to connect with one another as well as for the audience to connect with the characters. Alikhan and choreographer Sebastiani Romagnolo move their performers through the playing area in ways that feel natural while also creating evocative portraits of conflict and resolution in progress (scenic designer Afsoon Pajoufar conjures wonders using little more than a shipping container, a dilapidated billboard, and some diner chairs). It's not uncommon for actors to brush past the leg of an audience member or waft through the aisles. But the effect of such movements always feels immersive, bringing us into an unexpectedly refreshing oasis without breaking the fourth wall.

Even more impressively, in a creative choice that will remind audiences of Writers Theatre's 2023 hit musical ONCE, most of the performers play their own instruments while effortlessly singing through David Yazbek's deceptively challenging score. With the help of sound designer Willow James, music directors Andra Velis Simon and Jason Burrow ensure that all the show's parts---vocal and instrumental---seamlessly blend together while also being crisp and clear enough to stand on their own. In the show's penultimate number, "Answer Me" (captivatingly led by Harper Caruso), the cast scatters throughout the audience and hits a chord so richly textured with pained hope that it can't help but bring a tear to the eye.

While the musical does its best to give equal stage time to the various villagers and musicians, Tewfiq and Dina are the undeniable leads of the piece due to the charisma of the performers who bring them to life. Barkhordar has a commanding voice with an impressive range that leaves viewers hanging on his every word. In one particularly memorable scene, his shouts thunder through the air before fading into whispered confessions that express the heartbreak and warmth lying under his coldly militaristic exterior. His gruff formality finds its complement in Madorsky's witty cynicism but its match in her pained existentialism. Her solos "Omar Sharif" and "Something Different" show off her keen sense of dynamics, her whispered mutterings carrying the same weight as her defiant belts. 

Review: THE BAND'S VISIT at Writers Theatre

While the entire ensemble deserves praise for their individual talents and collaborative cohesion, several performers deserve to be recognized for their stand-out performances. As the shy nebbish Papi, Sam Linda delights as he hilariously laments his failures with women while rollerblading through increasingly intricate configurations of other skaters. Armand Akbari charms as the jazz-loving trumpet player Haled (with the crooning skills to match), as does Michael Joseph Mitchell (Avrum) as a free-spirited widower recalling the night he first danced with his wife. As Itzik and his wife Iris, Dave Honigman and Dana Saleh Omar effectively capture the fear, regret, and confusion that plague all new parents. Their eventual reconciliation just as dawn arrives provides the musical with a satisfying---if tenuous---resolution. But to end the show with any greater degree of certainty would be to abandon the verisimilitude that drives it in the first place.

I must admit that I was hesitant to revisit this show since I last saw it in 2020. Given that the conflict in the Middle East has reached even more horrifying heights since October, the musical's message of hope and connection developing in spite of cultural and political differences feels quaintly naive, if not unrealistic. And yet, Writers Theatre's production of THE BAND'S VISIT feels so refreshingly human that one can't help but get swept up in its beauty. One can't help but wonder if empathy and understanding really could help us reach one another across unfathomable divides. Perhaps the music speaks to us, even if we haven't yet learned the words.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow