Theater Review: THE BAND’S VISIT (National Tour)

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by Marc Wheeler on December 7, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

LOST IN THE DESERT

Winner of 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical of 2018, Itamar Moses’s The Band’s Visit is one of the most highly-awarded shows in musical theater history. And yet, those expecting the razzmatazz of a Big Broadway Musical in The Band’s Visit’s “post-shutdown” North American Tour are likely to be at least somewhat disappointed in this understated work, even with its quirkiness and desert-breeze beauty. To its credit, the piece clamps lofty expectations from the start. “Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt,” it projects onto the stage. “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Potential sarcasm of this statement aside, any importance we do ultimately take away from this piece relies heavily upon what we project into its palpable restraint. 

You see, not much really happens in The Band’s Visit. A small orchestra from Egypt mistakenly travels to the wrong Israeli town for a performance. In kindness, the townspeople welcome them into their homes, offering them a place to crash before the morning bus sends them back on their merry way in time for their concert. That’s it. No big dance numbers. No crashing chandeliers. No revolutions. Just an unimportant day in an unimportant town, after which life returns to relative normalcy. 

Or does it? If transformation is a door, The Band’s Visit is the hinge on that door. By forcing our attention on the axis, not the wide-swinging results, it’s up to audiences to write the ever-afters. With such subtlety at work, it should come as no surprise that The Band’s Visit is inspired by a 2007 Israeli film of the same name (film being more properly suited for magnified nuance). This is where choice of venue is imperative. Home of many Academy Award ceremonies, Hollywood’s 3,400-seat Dolby Theater is grand and majestic. It’s also a cavernous space in which to tell such a fine-spun story. While I left The Band’s Visit less moved than I had hoped, I think only a fraction of that is due to the work itself. Even without seeing the show in a more intimate venue (200 seats or less, like the original off-Broadway production), I can say with assurance that while the Dolby Theatre (alongside Scott Pask’s scenic design) may have highlighted the ever-present barrenness of the work’s desert town and its inhabitants, it also swallowed a lot of the subtlety this musical requires to thrive. 

With songs like “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere,” it’s clear that existential ache is the primary language of Bet Hatikva, Israel — the fictional “Dodge” of the Middle East where the story takes place. It’s only natural that music must be their second language (how else are they going to process their existence?) This is where David Yazbek brings the work to life. Imbuing his haunting Middle Eastern score of quarter tones and minor chords with fresh, poetic lyricism, he sustains a sense of yearning throughout the show. Rare is a group number; solos and duets work in establishing a sense of isolation and loneliness. Sparingly, like in the sensual “Omar Sharif” and the gorgeous slow-build of “Answer Me,” he allows passions to swell and reveal themselves, then return ever-quickly to the slow drip of humdrum life. Having band members onstage playing background to their own story creates an almost-separate character in the work: one allowed to say the “unsaid.” Brimming with hope for what’s just out of reach, the exoticism of the music reinforces the cultural divide between geographic neighbors, even as it provides a means of connection and understanding. 

Under the direction of David Cromer, the cast plays well with this cultural tug-and-pull. Janet Dacal is fiery and passionate as Dina, the owner of a local café who welcomes band-conductor Tewfiq (a delicately reserved Sasson Gabay) into her home. In the role of Haled, the orchestra’s jazz-loving lothario, Joe Joseph is smooth as silk. And Coby Getzug as Papi, the local shyboy, is delightfully comical in his self-deprecating anthem “Papi Hears the Ocean.” 

Long after curtain, I admit I’m still haunted by The Band’s Visit. It’s a bit short for a musical, with no intermission, and it ends just when it seems to take-off — I guess they left me wanting more. But truly, I can’t seem to shake the notion that in a more intimate venue I could actually have a much richer experience with it. (Oh, the cruel irony of “rewarding” small works with giant theaters that overwhelm their delicacy.) I want to smell the sweet jasmine, taste the deep longing, and behold the slight shift from ennui into possibility. Separately, I want neighbors who aren’t repeatedly reminded to put on their masks. (Yes, returning patrons, “COVID Police” are now part of our theatergoing experience.) Oh, the many desires I’m left with after such a “band’s visit.” Is this L.A. … or Bet Hatikva?

photos by Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade

The Band’s Visit
national tour
reviewed at the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood
tour continues
for tickets, dates and cities, visit The Band’s Visit

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