The 2017 Broadway hit musical “The Band’s Visit” has finally reached the stage of the Academy of Music with the Philadelphia stop in its 2019 touring production. Based on the 2007 film of the same name, the musical follows an Egyptian police band who accidentally ends up in the small Israeli town of Bet Hatikva, a modest, slow-moving town inhabited by a group of fun locals. Over the course of the 24 hours in which the band is stuck there, they get to know the people of the town and learn a lot from one another about life and love.
The narrative follows three members of the band and their interactions with different groups of people in the town. The conductor, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), spends his evening with the owner of a cafe named Dina (Janet Dacal). Meanwhile, Simon (James Rana) stays with Itzik (Pomme Koch), his wife Anna (Jennifer Apple) and Itzik’s father-in-law, Avrum (David Studwell). Haled (Joe Joseph) tags along with Papi (Adam Gabay) as he stumbles his way through a date.
The first and most important thing to understand about “The Band’s Visit” is how unique it is. Despite being widely loved by the musical theater community, it almost serves as an antithesis to what musical theater typically is. There are no bombastic dance numbers, no quick-changes and no booming harmonized choruses; there isn’t even a second act. The show is just one act, that runs about an hour and a half. Its beauty lies in these bucking of conventions to tell the touching and human story that it sets out to tell.
That story is one that is inherently political but sets politics aside to convey its message through its script and characters. This is a group of Egyptian police musicians in a small town in Israel. But instead of the show being about a clash between their religions and cultures, it is instead about the two groups coming together.
Each group speaks two languages, but the only language that they share is English, a second language for them all. So the story breaks down into these two groups of people finding this common ground to be able to communicate and learn about each other. It also means that the characters are choosing all of their words very deliberately. This is an area where “The Band’s Visit” shines: its characters.
Because of its almost humble demeanor relative to its peers, the glitz and glam are left in favor of these deep characters who share their stories — some tragic, some beautiful and some both. The emotional heights reached by this show wouldn’t be possible without the brilliant book penned by Itamar Moses, and, of course, the actors to bring the words to life.
Gabai, who replaced Tony Shalloub in his role as Tewfiq, shines in every moment he is on stage. Though many of you may not know his name, Gabai is widely regarded as one of the best actors in Israeli cinema, and his performance in this show speaks volumes as to why. The gentle civility and vulnerability he brings to the character is captivating to watch unfold.
Dacal had big shoes to fill in those left by Katrina Lenk, who played Dina on Broadway. She succeeds in most ways, especially near the end of the show as Dina and Tewfiq’s relationship starts to develop. I commend her performance and the details she brought showed the softer side of Dina that hides under the aloof exterior, but, despite her great performance, I couldn’t help but compare her to Lenk and feel slightly disappointed.
Though the performances are what breathe life into this show, it would not be anything close to what it is without its music. “The Band’s Visit” shows a love for and understanding of music that is unlike anything else on Broadway. The life of this show is music. Composer David Yazbek uses elements of Egyptian and Middle Eastern music to bring the setting of the show to life in both the lyrical songs and instrumental interludes that the band plays on the stage’s sides. Most members of the eight-man band had very few or no lines but would play the accompaniments and instrumentals on stage. It was a wonderfully immersive way to shine a spotlight on Yazbek’s stunning compositions. There is also something about watching the actors actually playing the music in the context of the show that is enchanting.
This show is unlike any other show that exists right now. Its beauty lies in the depth of its simplicity. I genuinely can’t recommend this show enough. It’s running at the Kimmel Center from Jan. 7-19. I implore you to experience this uniquely human story and the captivating music that ushers it along, which make for a performance you will never forget.