Egyptian musicians wind up in a small Jewish town in The Band’s Visit at the Ed Mirvish Theatre
“You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” That’s the tagline to the events of the David Yazbek/Itamar Moses musical The Band’s Visit, now playing on tour at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. The show, based on a 2007 Israeli film, won 10 Tonys in 2018, and comes highly celebrated for such a supposedly small story.
In 1996, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, from Egypt, gets invited to play a show at Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Instead, due to a miscommunication, they wind up at Bet Hatikva, a (fictional) small desert town where absolutely nothing ever happens. As they wait for the next day’s bus ride out, the band members accept the initially-wary townspeople’s offer of their homes, hospitality, and the potential for unexpected, fly-by-night connections.
The Band’s Visit is very much a “hangout” musical, based on small, human interactions between people, rather than large, life-changing actions. Even so, lives are changed and hearts are healed over the course of one evening, due to the powerful ability that music and kindness have to open the soul and make friends of strangers. What happened feels larger than the sum of its parts, a quietly beautiful experience.
Yazbek and Moses play with quiet and silence and the awkward interactions that can arise both between people who don’t know each other at all, and people who know each other too well. The prevailing mood of the evening is that of yearning, symbolized by one musician’s lovely yet incomplete clarinet concerto. Everyone here, like the townspeople’s opening song, is “Waiting” – for a different life, for a moment of excitement, for the mistakes of the past to be righted.
Chief among the yearners are Dina (Chilina Kennedy), dancer turned cafe owner, and Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), the stoic bandleader, whose long evening hints at a possible romance. Speaking heavily-accented English as a lingua franca, they find additional common ground in the movies of Omar Sharif and the experience of finding out that life often does not meet one’s expectations.
Kennedy drives the action, projecting a sarcastic, defensive dignity that only vaguely covers up the vulnerable woman within who longs for exotic spice in a bland existence.
Gabay, who originated the role of bandleader Tewfiq in the film, has a more watchful eye and less outwardly performative part. However, his quiet and steady presence, coupled with moments of openness, is a moving one. The silent dance of Tewfiq showing Dina how to conduct brought sudden tears to my eyes. Her darkly floral dress and his baby-blue Sergeant Pepper band uniform bring a pop of vibrancy to a dusty landscape.
Like a dream deferred, the songs are delicate and lyrical, while simultaneously being assured and passionate. They are sighed into the air with a propulsive, tantalizing beat, slipping in and out of our consciousness. They satisfy without the usual pomp of big production numbers; they just are.
There are surprisingly few tensions between Arab musicians and Jewish townspeople, save an uncomfortable interaction with a bouncer, but the knowledge of their differences is always there. That’s enough. Much like Come From Away’s relationship to 9/11, the musical is not based on the conflict, but the people.
People like the charming, Chet Baker-loving Haled (Joe Joseph) who acts as a modified Cyrano de Bergerac to bring nervous young lovers together, and people like Papi (Adam Gabay) one of those potential lovers, who can’t hear beyond the roar in his ears when he looks at a woman. People like Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo), waiting at a payphone for weeks for his girlfriend to call.
People like Itzik (Pomme Koch) singing a deceptively simple, heartfelt lullaby to his child in a clear, high tenor, Avrum (David Studwell) and his wistful ode to love born of a melody, and the band members who celebrate these loves with them. They’re all perched on a knife’s edge of longing – or, more appropriately, a reed’s edge, a drumbeat, an eighth’s rest. I appreciated the range of non-stereotypical personalities, though I did long to see more development for similarly varied female characters.
Maybe it’s not “important,” but The Band’s Visit is contemplative, earnest, and genuine. I almost wished to see it in a more intimate venue, but there’s something fitting about experiencing the magic of the show in a community of strangers.
This band is only visiting for a month. Spend an evening with them while you can.
- The Band’s Visit plays at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria St) until October 20th, 2019.
- Show times are Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm, and Wednesday at 1:30 pm.
- There is an open captioned performance Sunday, October 13 at 2:00 pm
- Tickets are $49-175 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, or at the Theatre Box Office.
- This play uses stage haze and strobe light effect.
- Running time is approximately 100 minutes without intermission.
Photo of Sasson Gabay and Chilina Kennedy by Matthew Murphy