The Band’s Visit arrived at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday evening — a national touring production running through Sunday (January 26) — and there’s one essential question: How does this intimate, conversational, silence-laden musical translate from a small Broadway theater to the cavernous old movie palace on Peachtree?
Based on an indie Israeli film about a group of Egyptian musicians stranded for a night in a bleak Israeli town, The Band’s Visit won all the usual honors accorded to a memorable, paradigm-shifting show, including the 2018 Tony Award for best musical and a 2019 Grammy for best musical theater album. It was deeply appreciated by critics and the Broadway establishment despite being an anti-blockbuster. It’s mostly quiet and understated, with each character developed in three rounded dimensions, there’s zero razzle-dazzle and the music draws from klezmer and Arabic classical and folks traditions.
Running a relaxed 100 minutes with no intermission, the show opens with the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving at an Israeli airport. They’ve been invited to perform at the Arab Cultural Center in a swingin’ town called Petah Tikva, which they mispronounce as Bet Hatikva, a sad little patch of concrete in the desert. They take the wrong bus.
In the savvy and sympathetic book by Itamar Moses, with ear-tingling music and lyrics by David Yazbek (The Full Monty), the comic confusion about these two similar-sounding towns — especially when spoken quickly by the natives — is a running gag that almost runs out of steam. But there’s so much yet to reveal from these characters. Alas, in a theater the size of the 4,665-seat Fox, many of the subtleties of David Cromer’s direction will be too distant for much of the audience to see.
The story gets moving when the Egyptians, looking retro-formal in their powder blue uniforms, march into town and realize their mistake. There are no buses until tomorrow. Tewfiq, the band’s conductor, is older than the others, a man of few, choice words. We’ll discover that everyone has a troubled backstory, with unique ways to cope or ignore it. (On this tour, Tewfiq is played by Sasson Gabay, an Israeli actor who played the role in the film.)
They meet Dina and her friends in the song “Welcome to Nowhere,” hilarious for its assertive bleakness. Snarky dance moves, in Patrick McCollum’s choreography, elevate the scene to high comedy, reinforced by Scott Pask’s set designs, based on the colors of sand and cement, which are oppressive in their drabness. Eventually the locals, in a mixture of pity and curiosity, feed the musicians and open their homes for the night.
Dina (Janet Dacal) is the kind of woman that we once would have called a knockout. Sexy and assured, she puts a hand on her hip and leans back when she’s talking, fully aware of her power over men. She’s also high-strung, bored beyond belief and annoyed at the many missteps that got her stranded in this desolate place. It’s her own fault and she knows it.
Reaching out to Tewfiq, searching for a connection, she teases him and, in the song “Omar Sharif,” shares her memories of the glamorous old Egyptian films that filled her imagination as a girl. It’s a touching scene, and her budding friendship with the gentlemanly Tewfiq, as he quotes from the same old films, is genuine.
Moments later, however, she spots her secret lover at the café — he’s with his wife and kids — and she calls out to him, provokes him in public and later kicks herself for being so senselessly stupid. It’s no wonder she’s miserable. While Dacal acts the part of Dina with swagger and vulnerability, her singing voice is a size too scrawny and inexpressive to fully inhabit the role — certainly when compared with the hyper-charismatic Dina from Broadway, sultry-voiced Tony winner Katrina Lenk.
It’s Yazbek’s music, where different cultures, different tribes, speak a common emotional language that holds the show tightly together. While many of the songs have a pop-Broadway flair — bouncy and fun, with a Middle-Eastern lilt — there’s a deeper connection heard between scenes, when the band’s actor/musicians perform in the Arabic classical style. These intense little interludes, with virtuoso playing including clarinet, oud (an Arab lute) and darbuka (a kind of goblet drum), convey at once joy and fluid excitement and eternal melancholy.
Some of the songs are musically cute, with catchy rhythms, while underlying the characters’ deeper humanity. “Papi Hears the Ocean” is a charming ode to a teenage boy’s approach to romance, sung with embarrassing awkwardness by Adam Gabay.
There’s Avrum (David Studwell), who recounts in “The Beat of Your Heart” how he met his late wife and how music was their shared love. Around the same dinner table, the slacker husband Itzik (Pomme Koch) tells their guest the story of how, as a boy, he skipped his birthday celebration by hiding in a tall tree. This reveals his core personality and drives his frazzled wife to the brink. He might not cut it as a husband, but we later learn in “Itzik’s Lullaby” that he’s a tender father.
Among the lovely attitudes advanced in the show: a complete lack of hostility toward different cultures. It’s this open-hearted empathy that makes The Band’s Visit such a relief for these angry, isolationist times. In part, it helps explain why this modest, well-crafted musical receives outsized acclaim. It’s a hopeful message for our increasingly scary political landscape.
Perhaps the most emblematic character is named simply Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo). He stands at a pay phone at all hours, waiting for his old girlfriend to call. She never calls. But he waits and waits, like a dog staring at the doorknob waiting for his human to come home. He’s optimistic with a good spirit — as we learn in “Answer Me” — but he’s also sad and a little desperate. In all, that’s a reasonable summary of The Band’s Visit.