BWW Review: Beautiful & Unexpected THE BAND'S VISIT Arrives in Milwaukee
"Nothing is as beautiful as something that you don't expect."
On this Thanksgiving week, I for one am thankful for traveling musicals that make it so easy to write a review. For The Band's Visit, I have nothing but praises to sing. This is a small, simple tale, for as the show's bookends remind us, "You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important."
This seemingly-unimportant story tells of one night in the middle of the Israeli dessert, where a troupe of musicians from Egypt end up in a tiny, unsuspecting town due to a travel mix-up. There's no hotel in this Little Village and no bus back until morning, so the gentlemen in the band lean on the kindness of locals to get through the night.
The band's conductor is Tewfiq, an older man, quiet and reserved. He's marvelously played here by Sasson Gabay, who is reprising the role he originated in the 2007 film. He's also played the part on Broadway. To Gabay's infinite credit, he succeeds in making one wonder at and care for this stoic character, even on a stage as large as the one at the Marcus Center.
Opposite Tewfiq is Dina, owner of the town café. She's beautiful, sensual, and tough as nails. On this warm dessert night, she attempts to awaken some long-lost feeling -- not only in the traveling conductor, but herself. Critically-acclaimed actress Chilina Kennedy plays Dina, and she is exquisite. Kennedy's voice soars and enchants as her movements transport us to that hot, sticky, dessert with its jasmine- and spice-scented breeze. She is, in a word, bewitching.
Alongside these two central figures stands a mighty ensemble of characterful personas. Bandmates and townsfolk alike, these are not one-dimensional parts. Rather, each one lures you in to make the audience feel a sense of connection. These are human stories and snapshots of life: a tired young mother, a young man who's never kissed a girl, a clarinet player who is writing an original concerto, a boy waiting by a payphone for his girl to call. Some mourn the loss of loved ones; others celebrate the lives of those lost.
Even in its simplicity, The Band's Visit packs a lot of narrative into its one-and-a-half-hour, no-intermission runtime. Yet, somehow, this show takes its time as well. Characters and moments have room to breathe. There are silences, pauses, and stuttered attempts to bridge gaps in language between the Egyptian band and their Israeli hosts. One might find it slow, but I say this unhurried storytelling is positively charming.
Filling some of the silence is a glorious Tony- and Grammy-winning score by David Yazbek. The band itself plays on stage throughout the show, lending authentic dimension to the characters and plot. It's spellbinding to watch these musicians play so feverishly. Vocal performances are, across the board, equal to the music.
Brilliant set design aids in the changing of scenery and flow of the story. A rotating stage takes the cast from a café to a series of apartments to a park. We even go to the newfangled town roller rink, complete with a spinning mirror ball that bathes the audience in shimmering flecks of light. It's a gorgeous set and lighting design that makes inventive use of space and perspective.
What kind of perspective are you bringing as you settle into your seat at the Marcus Center this holiday weekend? The Band's Visit celebrates the intimate, authentic, and real; the facets of life that connect us and make us all human. It's an uplifting reminder of all that we share and of what good and beauty can come when we open our doors and hearts to the unknown. This is the Thanksgiving show Milwaukee needs, and I'm so glad we've got it.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy