The Band's Visit Gets a New Conductor in Sasson Gabay
The sign of a truly great show is when you discover something new with each visit. So it is with The Band's Visit, the 2018 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. Broadway insiders have sought to explain away the show's 10 Tonys as the inevitable result of being the only "adult" musical in a thin season; but to do so is to discount the real artistic achievements of composer David Yazbek, book writer Itamar Moses, and director David Cromer. In its own unassuming way, The Band's Visit is actually the most innovative musical on Broadway.
That starts from its self-deprecating first moments, when Maya Ciarrocchi's simple projections announce that the story we're about to witness is "not very important." From its deliberate pacing to its pregnant pauses to its sensible lack of exclamatory punctuation, The Band's Visit feels a lot more like an independent film than a Broadway musical.
The show (like the 2007 film on which it is based) tells the story of an Egyptian police band visiting Israel for a concert at the Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. But when trumpeter Haled (Ari'el Stachel) accidentally buys the wrong bus tickets, the band ends up in Bet Hatikva, a small town without so much as a hotel (much less an Arab cultural center). Bandleader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) is furious, but with little Israeli money and no return bus until morning, he surrenders to the hospitality of café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk). She offers the band food and places to stay for the night, with the assistance of Itzik (John Cariani) and Papi (Etai Benson). A world of magic and possibility materializes, as strangers become friends for just one night.
The story remains the same, but the performances have deepened over the nine months since The Band's Visit opened at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre: Tony winner Lenk is even more bewitching as Dina, while Tony winner Stachel's trumpet playing has significantly improved (his blue note is guaranteed to give you chills). Everyone in the cast is truly living in Bet Hatikva, allowing individual story lines to emerge in vivid Technicolor.
Two performances particularly stood out in my repeat viewing: Kristen Sieh radiates barely suppressed rage as Iris, wife to the chronically unemployed Itzik and mother to a young child. Even as the men around her danced to the infectiously fun number "The Beat of Your Heart," she maintained her implacable (and completely justified) resentment. Playing the role of violinist Camal, George Abud consistently wows with both his comic timing and musical virtuosity. His voice gloriously rings through the theater in "Itzik's Lullaby," during which he plays an oud.
The biggest change in the show is in the role of Tewfiq: Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the film, has taken over from Tony winner Tony Shalhoub. Much more than Shalhoub, Gabay plays Tewfiq as a musical patriarch, whose clenched jaw is enough to send his subordinates scurrying. Shalhoub's Tewfiq was theatrically bashful, uncomfortable to be relying so heavily on the kindness of strangers and slightly embarrassed by the aggressive attention coming from a younger woman. Gabay's Tewfiq, conversely, is reserved even in his expression of reservation. His response to Dina's flirtation is to politely ignore that it is even happening, causing Lenk to go even further in exhibiting her interest, splaying her legs and dancing to the music of his accent. Their palpable age difference makes their love seem that much more urgent (and doomed).
Cromer builds a solid foundation for these revelatory performances by creating a world that feels simultaneously enchanted and unmistakably real. Much of that comes through in Patrick McCollum's subtly powerful choreography: Actors seamlessly slip into dance from their natural movement in the upstage dimness, accenting the downstage action.
So much of what is beautiful and intangible about The Band's Visit is told through Tyler Micoleau's lighting, little glimmers of which reflect on the faces of our characters: the light from a telephone booth as a man (an aching Adam Kantor) waits for his girlfriend to call, a street lamp over widower Avrum (the sympathetic Andrew Polk) as he shuffles home with a bag of groceries, the end of a cigarette Iris lights in desperation. Similar flickers illuminate the high windows in Scott Pask's set of drab apartment blocks. These little sparks are like lighthouses, guiding our characters to shore — it's not just the Egyptians who are adrift in The Band's Visit.
It's hard to isolate exactly what that light represents: Hope? Perseverance? Love? All we know is that when it sheds its grace on our characters, as it does in the breathtaking number "Answer Me," all is right with the world. The joy of seeing The Band's Visit is spending 90 minutes in that light.