As represented in the Biblical story of Babel, diverse languages divided the human race, leaving them isolated. People speak of the great unifier, the language of love, but we've also been gifted with the language of music. Every instrument, despite their countries of origin, plays the same notes, and together, an orchestra can create a symphony of beauty. The enchanting musical The Band's Visit, now at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, perfectly embodies the simplicity with which music draws even the most disparate group of people into a gentle harmony.
Based on the lauded 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Band's Visit tells of an Egyptian orchestra invited to play in Israel at an Arabic cultural center. A clash of language leaves the band lost in a small, sparsely populated Israeli town. The sight of Egyptians, dressed in official garb, off-puts the locals. Yet, out of kindness, they offer the men food and shelter for the night at local homes.
The cafe manager, Dina (Janet Dacal) — gruff, but yearning for a more passionate life — takes in both the conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and his troublemaking lothario trumpeter Haled (Joe Joseph). After settling into her modest apartment, she takes Tewfiq on a tour of the sparse town. Haled joins the shy Papi (Coby Getzug) on a disastrous blind date with a local girl. In another distressed home, Simon (James Rana) the clarinetist, accompanies the wayward Itzik (Clay Singer), and wife, Iris (Kendal Hartse), and his father-in-law (David Studwell). A new mother with an out-of-work husband, Iris suffers from postpartum depression and abandons her husband for the evening in a huff. Though none of the Egyptians and Israelis dramatically alter each other's lives, they both impart a bit of wisdom, decency, and tenderness.
Itamar Moses's book, based on Eran Kolirin's original screenplay, subtly weaves these stalwart gentlemen into the inert lives of this small town. Mostly using music, the company bonds, recollecting memories and exploring similarities between two cultures. A simple exchange near the finale perfectly exemplifies that even divergent languages have the same soul at its crux. Iris's father says the usual Israeli farewell "Shalom aleichem" to Simon as he departs, and Simon responds, "Alaikum salaam." Both have said "Peace be upon you" in separate languages, but their meaning is the same and their words sound identical. It represents a bond that could shatter all hatred if carried forward by governments.
David Yazbek absorbs the unique sounds of the Middle East, using instruments like the oud and the darbuka, to create a warm, Mediterranean score. Few songs are memorable, but they all transport the audience to the oppressively hot, dry, lonely village. By having much of the score played by the actors in the band on the stage, it adds a flair the movies call cinema verité. Yazbek also enjoys his usual signatures of paying homage to other musical giants by adding a few notes from "The Girl From Ipanema" into "Beat Of Her Heart." Instead of hammering the hint over the head, it's so subtle, it barely registers to the ear.
Gabay returns to the lead role of the conductor, one he played not only on Broadway when he replaced Tony winner Tony Shalhoub in 2018, but which he originated in the original film. He brings authority to the role; his character says few words, but the actor makes clear the pain Tewfiq has suffered due to pride. Rough as a cat's tongue and fiery with lust, Dacal longs for a sexual touch and seems to be clawing out of her skin. Joseph is hilarious as the Don Juan, imparting his moves onto his hopelessly bashful new friend. Rana has great chemistry with Studwell and Singer. Three fathers, they all understand the burden of parenting and supporting a partner.
Scott Pask's sets give a gritty, wind-worn feel of the culturally impoverished village. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau uses mostly natural light – dull fluorescents over the restaurant's patrons, a bright call light above a pay phone – which adds to the documentary flavor.
The Band's Visit will remind audiences of a show that landed in Los Angeles right before Covid, Come From Away. In both, newcomers are treated as guests not invaders, and audiences are reminded that the true human spirit is filled with love, not bigotry. With its tender score, and heartfelt book, The Band's Visit is a rallying call to share this world together, not divide and conquer.