Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"The Band's Visit" Broadway tour at the Orpheum Theatre

This morning my yoga teacher asked us to think of something that was magic. It should come as no surprise that my immediate thought was: theater. I can't think of anything more magical than a couple of thousand strangers sitting in a room together and being transported to a tiny town in the middle of the desert in Israel, hearing the stories of people who may live in a very different place than us, may speak a different language, may have different beliefs, but with whom we connect and relate to via our shared humanity. And really, this is what The Band's Visit is all about. People who may seem very different coming together and sharing a very real and human, if momentary, connection through music and stories. It's such a simple and beautiful story, and one that this divided world needs to hear now more than ever. Which is why I'm so glad that this 2018 ten-time Tony Award winner, which just closed on Broadway in April, is touring the country so that ordinary people in ordinary towns can experience this extraordinary story of ordinary people in an ordinary town. That's the kind of magic that can change the world.

Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Band's Visit tells the "not very important" story of a group of musicians from Egypt who were invited to perform by the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva, but instead end up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with the very similar name of Bet Hatikva. With no bus until the next day, and no hotel in town, the cafe owner and her friends take in the musicians overnight. They find common ground in sharing music, or talking about movies they love. In the space of less than 24 hours, connections are made, worlds are opened up, and lives are changed. Then the band leaves town, and everything goes back to the way it was before, but different. If this sounds like a simple premise for a musical, it is, and therein lies the beauty.

The Band's Visit is more quiet that most musicals are, which is refreshing. The story progresses with an unhurried, languid pace, with moments of (sometimes deliciously awkward) silence. It's the kind of show where nothing really happens, but everything happens. Both the visitors and the visitees are experiencing loss, grief, boredom, relationship problems, and the full range of human emotions. This band showing up is the most exciting thing that's happened in ages, and serves as a catalyst, a wake-up call. Every one of the characters introduced feels like a full and complex character, even though we don't know everything about them, just a slice of their much more complicated and ongoing life. It's a snapshot in time of the universal humanity of these specific people in this unique situation.*

It's quite a rare and special thing to see a cast full of actors of Israeli and Arab descent, playing fully rounded non-stereotypical characters telling their own stories. Tony winner Katrina Lenk left big shoes to step into, but Chilina Kennedy does a wonderful job, totally owning the role of Dina and making it her own in another spellbinding performance. Sasson Gabay played Tewfiq in the movie, on Broadway, and in this tour, but I saw understudy James Rana in the role, and his performance is lovely, quiet, and deep. Other highlights in this talented ensemble are Joe Joseph as the charming ladies man Haled, prettily singing the prettiest song, and Adam Gabay as my favorite character - poor, sweet, awkward Papi.

The staging (director David Cromer) is lovely, utilizing concentric rotating circles in a subtle and effective way to create beautiful images. Gorgeous lighting effects (designed by Tyler Micoleau) throw stunning shadows on the wall. The set (designed by Scott Pask) is also quite clever and versatile, with sand colored buildings opening and turning to reveal various interiors. The choreography (by Patrick McCollum) is lovely, emotional, and character defining.

Saving the best for last - the music! The score (by David Yazbek) is a mix of Broadway style songs with traditional Middle Eastern music, a sound and instrumentation not often seen and heard on Broadway, including long instrumentals during scene changes. Some of the band members (in darling powder blue uniforms) play their instruments on stage, supported by the backstage orchestra (conducted by Rick Bertone). They make you wait until after the curtain call to hear the full band perform, and it's worth the wait.*

The Band is Visiting Minneapolis for only a week - fans of new, unique, original (well, adapted from a little known original movie) music-theater will not want to miss it. And if you're downtown early, head to Jack's Link Lounge right next to the theater for world music before every show, starting at 6. Click here for information and tickets, including educator/student rush tickets.

*Some text borrowed from what I wrote about the Broadway production.