BWW Interview: Mike Cefalo of THE BAND'S VISIT at Peace Center
The Broadway production of the "joyously offbeat" The Band's Visit won 10 Tony Awards®, including Best Musical. Now it's touring the nation, arriving at The Peace Center in Greenville, SC on August 27.
It's a unique look at the way music can make us laugh, cry, and, ultimately, bring us all together.
I recently spoke to Mike Cefalo who portrays Telephone Guy in the touring production. Mike discussed his background, tantalized us with some info on the Telephone Guy, and told us about the many ways that The Band's Visit is so unique. Here's our lightly edited conversation.
BWW: Start off by telling me a little bit about yourself.
I'm from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, originally, and I've been doing theatre my whole life. My parents were always extremely supportive, which I'm very grateful for. I went to college at Baldwin Wallace University, where I got my Bachelor of music and musical theatre. I moved to New York shortly after graduation and had been working regionally in theaters around the country for about two years when, one day, I got the call that I'd be joining The Band's Visit - which was obviously a very nice call!
Did your musical theatre training encompass some dance work as well? I'm just kind of curious.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, it was a very rigorous program. We trained in various sorts of dance - tap, ballet, jazz, hip hop, modern.
I've been a tap dancer for my whole life. That's how I started. I took tap lessons when I was little kid, and it's, like, my favorite thing. I love it. I still tap all the time. But you won't see me do it in this one! No tap dancing in this one.
Is there any kind of dance component to this show?
There isn't a traditional dance component to the show, no. But there is a lot of heightened movement, and very stylistic ways that we tell a story. It's very subtle, and sometimes this movement kind of flows out of natural ways of movement, and then turns into a more stylistic interpretation. It's beautiful. Our choreographer, Patrick McCollum, selectively uses this, but it's beautifully conveyed, especially with our lighting design. So there will be moments in the show when a seemingly small conversation kind of morphs into a very beautiful little art piece. It's really cool.
So tell me a little bit about the show.
The Band's Visit stems from the 2007 film that was written by Eran Kolirin and it starred Sasson Gabay, who is actually reprising his role as Kofi in this production. He took over for Tony Shalhoub on Broadway, and then is actually touring the country in the same role, which, I think, is the first time in history this has been done. So, yeah, it's really cool. His son, Adam Gabay, is also in our production playing Papi. So it's really cool. And The Band's Visit is about a group of musicians from Egypt who are on their way to play a concert. But through a mistake, they wind up in a little dirt town in Israel. And it's kind of hard to give any more away, because it would spoil a lot, but it's kind of about this group of strangers being welcomed in by this town, by this little community, and seeing how their lives unfold and intersect throughout the evening. And it ultimately comes down to just being a piece about human connection and how we all want to seek a little bit more in life, and how we can find that in the things that are seemingly mundane or small or delicate. It's a really, really beautiful piece.
I love that. And coming on the heels of Come From Away, which just recently played here, I think that's a really great message to be sharing with everyone right now.
Absolutely. I agree. Come From Away floored me when I saw it. It's striking. It's amazing. Yeah. And what's really cool about The Band's Visit is since it's about this group of musicians from Egypt, there's a lot of traditional Arabic music that is weaved into the production. And it's all performed live on stage. So the band that travels to this little town in Israel, will be camping out throughout the night, and you'll see a lot of traditional Arabic instruments like the oud and the darbuka and the riqq. So all of this music is performed live on the stage during the show, and it's kind of woven in really, really beautifully with the rest of the story.
So tell me a little about your character.
I play the Telephone Guy. Through the evening you catch glimpses of him, and this guy has been waiting at the only payphone in town for a month for his girlfriend to call. And throughout the night, the characters will check in on him and ask if she called yet and he'll always come back with "Not yet not yet but soon." I always thought of him as kind of the town kook, like he's the one who'd be saying, "No, the UFO's haven't come yet, but they're coming, I know it!" Whether or not he gets that pay off, I'll leave to the people who come to the show. But it's a really cool, really interesting role. And he, the telephone guy, kind of represents faith. Because there's another character, Camal, who's one of the Egyptians, played by Ronnie Malley. And I think that these two characters - they interact quite a bit throughout the show - and I think that the two of them kind of represent faith versus pessimism. And the way that unfolds, you'll see through the show, but this all kind of culminates in the show's final number, "Answer Me," which I sing, and it's just such a beautiful, beautiful song written by David Yazbek. It starts with a very, very quiet almost prayer and then transforms into the largest group member the show has, and it is a very, very powerful moment to see on stage.
So how does it feel to be in that moment, and kind of lead that moment?
It is the most surreal feeling of all time singing that song because our show features a turntable on stage. So the set is constantly rotating in a circle. And I'll never forget the first night that I performed this number because the audience kind of melts away and I'm standing in total darkness just illuminated by the light of this payphone. And I'm slowly spinning around and just singing this hauntingly beautiful song that David Yazbek wrote. And it was - it's amazing. It's the best feeling in the world. And I'm really lucky that I get to do it every night. Like I know that it sounds corny, but I'm truly, like, floating through space, as I sing this beautiful, beautiful song. And then being able to be joined by every single member of the company, just singing their hearts out for a second and pouring all of this energy into the abyss - it is the greatest feeling. I can't wait for you to see it!
Talk to me about age appropriateness - who should see this?
I think it's totally age appropriate. The only strong language that it has is in Hebrew. Oh, and I forgot to mention, you'll be hearing three different languages in this production. So the group of musicians are from Egypt, and they speak Arabic. And they wind up in this little town where everybody clearly speaks Hebrew. And so the show is told through broken English as these two groups of people try to speak a common language. It's really interesting. There will be times when people don't speak for like two minutes, because it's just intentionally awkward and they're trying to communicate but they have difficulty speaking English.
How do you feel like this show is different from other shows you've done?
I saw it on Broadway about a year before I auditioned for it and I was absolutely blown away, because it was just so utterly different from anything I've ever seen. The tone is very quiet, at least at first. There are moments when we, of course ramp it up to 10, and it's very exciting. But the show is a very quiet little beast. It makes the audience lean in from the second it begins. And we establish this kind of contract with the audience, that the show is going to be quiet, and the show is going to be nuanced, and just the subtle turn of a head is going to be big, is going to be the only movement in the theater. And in that way, David Cromer has made the very subtle and delicate things in this show stand out the most. It's really cool. In the musical numbers, there's a weaving of traditional Israeli and Arabic musical styles. And that's what sets The Band's Visit apart from the rest. The score is just unbelievable. Yazbek has written, I mean, countless Broadway hits, like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Tootsie, which is playing on Broadway now. And working with him closely on this was really incredible. I mean, the vocalists and the talent throughout this really elevate this piece. I can't wait for people to see it!
What kind of reactions have you been getting from audiences?
Oh, it's been astounding. People visit us at the stage door and whether or not they have a personal connection to the piece, some people will be -- in fact, I talked to a couple the other night, and this man said, "This is my wife. She's from Israel, we met in Israel. We had no idea what the show was about. And you literally so authentically transformed that theater into what we'd come to know when we were living there. And these people were so authentically grounded and real." People have just been so touched by it. Even people who don't really have any personal connection to the story were blown away. People come up to us and just thank us for sharing the story. And they're like, we really all can relate to at least one person in the story and how everybody's kind of longing for a personal connection or longing for something a little bit different than what they're facing in their everyday life. It's great.
I can't wait to see this.
Yeah, it's really it's really something special.
Well, I really look forward to it. Talking about those subtle moments - I really appreciate that more and more, when you take the courage to just be still on stage and let some of those more subtle moments really stand out. So it's not all just flash flash flash. Those subtle moments can really even carry more weight.
That's a really great way to explain it. We give it time to breathe. Because it's a short show. It's like, a little over 90 minutes, and it's one act. So, yes, we really give it the time that it needs. At first it was a little jarring as an actor to just kind of stand there and, you know, you feel like everything should move in such a quick pace, and this show doesn't. We let it breathe and let it take shape and become alive. It's really special to see.