‘The Band’s Visit’
brings its musical poetry to Dolby Theatre
BY CHARLES MCNULTYTHEATER CRITIC (DEC. 2, 2021)
A musical doesn’t have to make a lot of noise to dazzle. “The Band’s Visit,” the exquisitely delicate Tony-winning show now receiving its Los Angeles premiere at Dolby Theatre, treads lightly across the stage in a hush of magic.
Based on Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s screenplay for his 2007 film of the same title, “The Band’s Visit” follows a group of Egyptian musicians who are stranded overnight in a sleepy desert town in Israel. Strangers in a suspicious land, they don’t expect to be welcomed. But instead of enmity, they find hospitality — their differences bridged first by courtesy, and later, as they get to know each other better, a somber-hued humanity.
Composer and lyricist David Yazbek infuses Itamar Moses’ book with lyrical poetry. Discreetly flecked rather than dolloped, music provides a vehicle of shared expression for grief, longing and hope — a universal language that recognizes no borders.
The state-of-the-art Dolby, where the production runs through Dec. 19, is an ideal venue for a show that relies on quiet clarity. The theatergoing experience is refreshingly unharried. Spacious enough to comfortably accommodate a crowd, the Dolby manages through the crispness of its sound system and the sharpness of its lighting to feel intimate even at a distance.
And intimacy is essential for “The Band’s Visit,” a musical that moves lightly yet deeply into Chekhovian territory. The tone is playful, almost casual. But some essential truth about life is captured in the insouciant flow.
The scene is drolly set in a few sentences projected onto the stage at the start of the show: “Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
Insignificance, however, marks the majority of our days. And what doesn’t make headlines turns out to matter a great deal.
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, which was invited to perform at an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva, is blown off course by a pronunciation error. The band winds up in Bet Hatikva, a fictional backwater that its own residents dismiss as “boring,” “barren” and “bland” in the wry number “Welcome to Nowhere.”
Dina (Janet Dacal), the owner of a café, greets this troupe of men with brusque bemusement. Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, reprising the role he played in the film), the commander of the orchestra, asks with impeccable manners whether he and his musicians may dine at her establishment. With a businesswoman’s shrug, she consents.
Formality is out of place in Bet Hatikva. “Pick a sandhill of your choosing,” jokes Papi (Coby Getzug), one of the friendlier locals. But Dina is drawn to Tewfiq’s gravity and thinks he looks cute in his powder-blue Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band suit. She offers to find sleeping accommodations for the musicians after breaking the news that there are no more busses today.
The town is reluctant to open its doors, but Dina proves to be as formidable a commander as Tewfiq. She divides the men up, taking Tewfiq and Haled (Joe Joseph), a young romantic trumpet player obsessed with Chet Baker, to her place.
Haled has reason to be nervous. It was his innocent miscommunication that landed the band on the wrong bus. Tewfiq has made his impatience with dreamy-headed Haled loudly known. Haled, however, is like a puppy unable to stop chasing after fun even after getting whacked with a newspaper.
As in a Chekhov play, a busy plot isn’t needed for revelations to emerge. “The Band’s Visit” relies on the alchemy of unexpected encounters. Dina and Tewfiq, ships in the night that aren’t supposed to be in the same waters, discover a shared love of old Egyptian movies, which Dina sings about in a lovely ode appropriately called “Omar Sharif.”
The characters catch glimpses of one another’s souls. Music leads the way by lifting the banal exchanges into a sudden sublime. In one of the most moving instances of this elevation, Simon (James Rana), a clarinetist and aspiring conductor who’s staying with a husband and wife (played by Clay Singer and Kendal Hartse) in the throes of marital problems, soothes their crying baby with some strains from his instrument.
Peace breaks out in this tempestuous household, and suddenly all of the built-up resentments don’t seem all that important. Simon hasn’t been able to finish the concerto he started writing long ago, but his art has done its job of easing the daily suffering.
The unspoken hangs between Dacal’s Dina and Gabay’s Tewfiq as they share a drink in the evening air. An affectionate melancholy fills the gaps in what they have time to say.
Joseph’s Haled radiates a sensual enjoyment, made all the most precious by his awareness that his days of youthful freedom are drawing to a close. The eclectic blend of musical styles — traditional Arab, klezmer and jazz, among them — enhances the cast’s subtle emotional chemistry.
David Cromer’s fluidly directed production glides from the café to domestic settings to a roller disco, all the while keeping tabs on a phone booth, where a forlorn-looking guy (Joshua Grosso) waits eternally for a call from his girlfriend that never seems to come.
The scenic design by Scott Pask has the same jaunty quality as the show itself. The settings are sketched with a simplicity that is more like a diagram than a photograph. Yet the moonlit atmosphere lends this elsewhere a haunting individuality.
At a time when everyone seems to be so angry, conflicts appear to be irresolvable and communion no longer within reach, “The Band’s Visit” is like balm for a tired spirit. The musical touched me deeply when I saw it on Broadway in 2017, but after such a long period away from the theater, I found the show even more profoundly affecting.
Operating on a subtler-than-usual Broadway frequency, Yazbek and Moses’ musical drama invites us to transcend our rifts. I didn’t realize how badly I needed “The Band’s Visit,” but this gift of a show has arrived in just the nick of time.
'The Band's Visit'
Where: Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 19
Tickets: Start at $30 (subject to change)
Contact: 1-800-982-2787 or BroadwayInHollywood.com or Ticketmaster.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes