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BWW Review: THE BAND'S VISIT is an Occasion Not to be Missed


Tender, poetic tale of strangers in a strange land lights up the Dolby

BWW Review: THE BAND'S VISIT is an Occasion Not to be Missed

The experience of hearing Janet Dacal sing is a bit like discovering new colors in a rainbow. Which is a mighty fortunate thing. Playing Dina, owner of a nondescript in a sleepy Israeli town at the center of the musical, THE BAND'S VISIT, Dacal sings quite a bit.

There is no "11-o'clock number" in this small bull joyous musical featuring a book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek. However, about a third of the way in, sitting in a nightclub with a man who, a couple hours earlier, was a virtual stranger, Dina unleashes a song titled "Omar Sharif" in which she reminisces about her childhood watching Egyptian movies on television. As her sultry baritone conjures up images of honey, wind and jasmine spice, we sit as transfixed as the Egyptian bandleader sitting opposite her. If before hearing this song, you had never previously known the identity of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (guilty!), Dacal's singing is enough to send you to a Google search in breathless anticipation.

Dacal's pipes are but one of a few dozen reasons to get to the Dolby Theatre before THE BAND'S VISIT continues its national tour and visits someplace else (The musical returns to the southland for a run at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County in March). No longer a hidden gem amidst a forest of bombastic musical giants, the show carted off the 2018 Best Musical Tony along with nine more awards out of 10 nominations. Based on a 2007 movie and a premise that you wish actually happened (even though it didn't), the musical, directed by David Cromer, is a gentle ode to open minds, tolerance, wrong turns and - sure - faith.

On its surface, you might expect heavy-handedness out of any story involving the interplay between Jews and Arabs in 1996 Israel. And certainly, from the moment they arrive in the village of Bet Hatikva in their sky-blue uniforms, the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band garner more than a few stares from the locals. Bound for Peta Tikva where they are scheduled to celebrate the opening of the Arab Cultural Center, the band members basically get stranded in the middle of a tiny desert town. "They're from the stone age," sniffs Dina, referring to the gawkers.

But stares aren't brickbats. In the ensuing 100 minutes, I counted exactly one borderline hostile encounter directed at the band. The bulk of the Bet Hatikvans do what small towns (in dramatic fiction, at least) have become legendary for doing...they take the lost strangers in, opening their hearts, minds and ears and embracing the music. Admittedly, it's a totally different animal, but I harkened back to 2017's COME FROM AWAY, another big-hearted and well-constructed musical about hospitality and the infinite comforts of strangers.

But back to the band. They're stuck in the wrong town with no bus until the next morning. Which means they must be housed. Dina takes in both the bandleader, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (played by Sasson Gabay) and the roguish trumpet player, Haled (Joe Joseph). Clarinetist Simon (James Rana) ends up at the home of Itzik (Clay Singer) his wife, Iris, (Kendal Hartse), their infant son and his father, Avrum, (David Studwell). Dina takes Tewfiq out to dinner while Haled crashes a double date at a roller rink, helping to teach the painfully shy Papi (Coby Getzug) how to get past the fear of interacting with his date, Julia (Layan Elwazani).

The remaining five members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band (Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis and Wick Simmons, aren't named and don't have much to do besides play the daylights out of Yazbek's score. Those who remember Yazbek's work on THE FULL MONTY and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS will encounter a very different product here. Whether we are treated to a middle-eastern influenced instrumental via the oud and the darbouka, a wry number like "Welcome to Nowhere"; or the parallel love songs delivered by Papi and Haled, Yazbek has written a winner; a richly-deserving Tony Award recipient. Plaudits also to music director Adrian Ries, coordinator Dean Sharenow and orchestrator Jamshied Sharifi along with co-supervisors Sharenow and Andrea Groudy. Collectively, Yazbek and production's musical team takes us away.

Escape is precisely what many of the characters of THE BAND'S VISIT would like to do. Hartse's brittle Iris is fed up with her dreamer of a husband. Dina is having an affair with a married man. The band members, at least, know that there will be a bus out of town the following day. As observant tourists who are hell bent on not making waves, they can listen, sympathize and even instruct.

Not that everything is so easy in their lives either. Tewfiq is as quietly closed-off as Dina is desperate for a human connection. The Israeli actor Sasson Gabay, who played the role both as Tony Shalhoub's replacement on Broadway and in the 2007 movie, conveys both Tewfiq's longing and his intense need to keep matters under control for personal and cultural reasons.
Joseph's slick charm never allows Haled's charm to get too eely and his sequence instructing Getzug's pitiful Papi in the ways of love is delightful. As the hapless Telephone Guy waiting at a payphone for a call from a girlfriend that may never come, Joshua Grosso embraces the spirit of the musical. He leads the ensemble in the cathartic late number, "Answer Me."

A final note about "Omar Sharif" which future Tony winner Katrina Lenk blew the doors off of on a nightly basis. Apparently the song was removed from earlier versions of THE BAND'S VISIT when it was considered unnecessary. Thankfully, someone came to their senses and restored it making an already wonderful musical that much richer.

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