BWW Review: THE BAND'S VISIT is Most Welcome at Broadway at the Hobby Center
THE BAND'S VISIT has been a critical darling of the musical theater world since it's Off-Broadway debut in 2016. It took home the Tony award for Best Musical in 2017, and was rewarded with many accolades that same year. It is a simple unique piece that adapts a 2007 movie which offered a slice of life drama about what happens when life takes you somewhere unexpected for a day. The narrative follows an Egyptian military band stranded for a night in a small Israeli town. It is charming and the music reflects the cultures that are clashing and coming together as a result. BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER brings this gem of a show to Houston for its official first tour.
The set up much like the entire production is simple and straightforward. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in Israel and has a concert scheduled at an Arabic center in Petah Tikvah. Unfortunately one of the band member's thick Egyptian accents gets the ticket seller confused at the bus station and they end up in the small town of Bet Hatikva. With very little money and a bus not coming until the next morning they are stranded and at the mercy of the residents. They end up in a diner run by Dina who agrees to feed the men and arrange to put them up for the night. The members of the band meet the residents of this remote village, and they all find that even small town people dream big dreams. Several personal connections are established, most notably between Dina and the conductor Tewfiq.
This is a stripped down show without huge dance numbers or swirling sets. No chandeliers crash down, no barricades spin during a revolution, and the band is not stuffed into a helicopter and whisked off at the end. Every song is original, so there's no ABBA tunes to sing along with. THE BAND'S VISIT feels intimate, and its charms are that it speaks to the audience in a gentle and assuring way. It does what all great theater pieces do - addresses what it means to be human. It is about connections. And in that it becomes bigger than any phantoms or kitty cats could hope for. The music and lyrics by David Yazbek are wonderfully layered, and they have a Middle Eastern flair that makes everything sound like nothing you have seen in a Broadway show before. The book by Itamar Moses captures the sense of a place and the spirit of its people.
At the Tuesday night performance at the Hobby Center Bligh Voth played the role of Dina, a part that carries the entire musical as the female lead. Bligh possesses an amazing voice, and was beautiful in a way that only a desert rose could be. She brought out a lot of what makes THE BAND'S VISIT so special. Opposite her was Sasson Gabay portraying the leader of the band Tewfiq. He originated the character in the source movie, and as you can imagine owns the part easily. He has a grace and charm that makes the audience crush on him as hard as Dina does.
Surprisingly, the supporting cast is rounded out by a good number of players from the original Broadway production, so this is one of the strongest touring companies I have seen. Joe Joseph reprises his role as Haled from that run, and he's an amazing mix of lyric tenor and crack comic timing. Adam Gabay as Papi also brings out an incredible talent for comedy with his solo number about hearing the ocean rather than a woman's voice. The ensemble is crackerjack, and everyone in it delivers a well thought out performance that made this show work.
Celebrated scenic designer Scott Pask does an amazing job of translating Israel onto the stage. He manages to use a monochromatic palette to convince us we are in the middle of nowhere, and the space feels bigger without much fuss. David Cromer's direction is tight, and the play moves along in just ninety minutes without an intermission. It never lags, and the story ping pongs between several character situations without a hitch.
THE BAND'S VISIT reminds audiences what musical theater can be when we remove garish production values and jukebox hits. It takes us somewhere unfamiliar, and by the end we realize that it's not nearly as far as we thought. The human heart is well mapped no matter where you go, and people have universal longings and needs. This piece is well worth seeking out, and what a wonderful experience to see thanks to BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER. It is the pure embodiment of the idea behind the lyric that "nothing is as beautiful as something you don't expect."
THE BAND'S VISIT plays only through Sunday February 2nd at the Hobby Center. Tickets can be purchased at https://houston.broadway.com/shows/the-bands-visit/ . You can also reach the Hobby Center by phone at (713) 315-2400.
Photo by Matthew Murphy