Review: THE BAND'S VISIT Stirs Emotions at Kennedy Center

By: Jul. 13, 2019
Review:  THE BAND'S VISIT Stirs Emotions at Kennedy Center
Chilina Kennedy and Sasson Gabay pictured; by Matthew Murphy

While I appreciated David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses' (book) multi-Tony Award-winning musical The Band's Visit when I saw it on Broadway in 2017, the show admittedly left me a bit cold sitting in the last row of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. I didn't connect with most of the material and while wonderfully performed, I found Yazbek's music to be derivative of his other creations - especially Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - albeit with a Middle Eastern flair. The national tour, now playing the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, gave me the opportunity to take another look at the show, based on Eran Kolirin's film.

Let's just say I'm really glad I had the opportunity. While the infinitely better fifth row seat may have had some impact on my much more positive reaction - after all, the show is really intimate, and is best viewed up close - I found myself connecting with the special story much more than before. I don't think it was just because of the seat either. The show allows you to immerse yourself in a different world if you let it.

It's 1996 and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has just arrived in Israel expecting to play a concert at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva. The highest ranking official, Colonel Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay who appeared in the film on which the musical is based), expects to be met by a representative from the center, but no one ever arrives. He instructs one of the orchestra's younger members, Haled (Joe Joseph), to go buy some bus tickets. Unfortunately, Haled buys tickets to Bet Hatikva, a small town in the desert with not much more than a café and an apartment building, instead of Pet Hatikva. The group does not realize their error until they arrive in the small town where Dina (Chilina Kennedy), the café owner, informs them of the mistake. She feeds them a meal and, upon realizing there would be no more buses until the next day, organizes places for them to stay for the night.

Though initially less than thrilled with having to deal with the unexpected visitors, Dina's two café workers, Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (Adam Gabay), form bonds with Simon (James Rana) and Haled, respectively. Simon calms Itzik's crying baby with his clarinet playing and Haled helps Papi deal with a bad case of anxiety while on a date at the local roller rink. Each begins to see the new face as a fellow human rather than simply a stranger from another land. Tewfiq, while apprehensive about spending the night in the town, let alone spending some alone time with Dina, similarly learns that while there are linguistic, religious, and cultural divides, Dina is someone with whom he can open up to and share deeply personal past experiences. The two bond over a shared appreciation of Egyptian/Arab films and music, but so much more.

The band members depart the next day in an unremarkable way and play their concert just as planned. Nothing really happened in the small town that night - much like every other night - only it did. Human bonds formed in ways that were probably previously considered unimaginable. When they leave, "Something's Different" for everyone to be sure.

What struck me the most about this musical production is how the story doesn't seem very rich or interesting at first glance, but is actually deeply emotional yet comedic. Truly organic bonds form between some everyday people and no flashy spectacle is needed to keep us engaged in the characters' short but important journey. The songs are interwoven into the story so well that they allow the characters to provide commentary about a situation, place, experience, emotion, or event, without interrupting the flow. I found myself immersed in the songs so much - what they communicated and how well the cast performed them - that I forgot the melodic lines still mostly sounded like others Mr. Yazbek has written before (and after).

Under the direction of David Cromer, the touring production benefits from a uniformly stellar cast adept at conveying emotional and comedy in the most natural of ways. Chilina Kennedy is wholly believable as Dina, a woman who has been hurt many times, is a bit sarcastic, but ultimately has a big heart. The strongest vocalist of the bunch, she slays "Omar Sharif" (Yazbek's strongest number, at least musically), but also interprets each lyric beautifully.

Appearing opposite her, Sasson Gabay gives an appropriately understated performance as Tewfiq, but each small movement and vocal inflection has a purpose. I connected with his performance because he was so believable, both as an individual and in his interactions with Ms. Kennedy. The Dina - Tewfiq pairing is much more equal in this production than it was on Broadway, at least in the original cast. On Broadway, I thought Katrina Lenk acted circles around Toby Shalhoub.

Joe Joseph, Adam Gabay, and Mike Cefalo (the Telephone Guy, a townsman who waits by the public phone for his girlfriend to call) provide the proceedings with a comedic touch, but not one that's too over the top.

Just as the cast captures the people who live in Bet Hatikva and those just passing through, so too does Scott Pask capture the small desert town environment with his scenic design. Sarah Laux's costumes highlight the differences between the two groups (the Israeli's and the Egyptians) in a visually pleasing way, while Tyler Micoleau's lighting design and Kai Harada's sound design is most appropriate for this subtle show.

Last, but definitely not least, I would be remiss not to mention the exceptional musicians in the pit and onstage. Directed by Rick Bertone, these remarkable players are essential to the success of the musical. Whether they're playing ambient music or delivering the concert performance at the end of the show, they command your attention and admiration.

So too does this special show command your attention and admiration. Take a chance and go see it at Kennedy Center through August 4.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

THE BAND'S VISIT plays the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater (2700 F St, NW in Washington, DC) through August 4, 2019. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.



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