Take a journey with The Band’s Visit, now through 1/19 at The Academy of Music

-Brenda Hillegas
Feature image: The company of The Band’s Visit, North American Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

The Band’s Visit, nominated for 11 Tony Awards (winning 10, including Best Musical), tells the tale of a group of people who end up in a small, unfamiliar town. Due to language barriers and a mispronunciation, an Egyptian police orchestra finds themselves far from where they are supposed to be, in the desert town of Bet Hatikva, Israel. Rather than leave them stranded without a place to stay, the people of Bet Hatikva take in these strangers and show them their town for the night. The musical follows their stories over the course of an evening.

The Band’s Visit is based on the 2007 movie of the same name. It translates beautifully to Broadway with traditional Middle Eastern music created by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Tootsie). The band of musicians enter the stage in bright baby blue uniforms, adding pops of color to the seemingly dull town. Cafe owner Dina (played by Janet Dacal who joins the tour in Philadelphia), explains that “once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important…”

But it is important, most especially for the characters in The Band’s Visit. The musical’s simple set transforms from a cafe, to a skating rink, to a small apartment…all usually uninteresting. All, most likely, playing out the same situations night after night in the tiny, desolate town. But the interactions these characters have with one another after meeting the band members create memorable experiences and moments that they’ll never forget.

This show is so unique. Unlike a lot of musicals, The Band’s Visit has no big show-stopping numbers and dance routines. There’s no need for all of that. Members of the visiting band are off to the sides of the stage in each scene, playing music to enhance every interaction. Music is a universal language. Even though we may not all understand the same words, we do understand the same feelings and emotions. Music helps.

Well-known Israeli actor Sasson Gabay portrays band leader Tewfiq not just on tour, but also while the show was on Broadway…and in the movie. His performance is flawless. His scenes with the equally amazing Janet Decal feel so real, these two characters needed to find one another.

Gabay’s son, Adam Gabay, makes his professional theatre debut as the shy and awkward Papi (a cafe worker). Haled (played by Joe Joseph), the band member responsible for accidentally bringing his group to this town, encourages him to approach his crush. If the band never ended up in Papi’s town, would he ever talk to her?

Fellow cafe worker, Itzik (Pomme Koch), takes in band member Simon (James Rana) for the evening. There’s awkwardness as Simon eats dinner with Itzik’s family, but conversation- through the broken English they all understand- allows them to open up with one another as the evening passes. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest.

Throughout the show, we also see a man waiting by the town’s only payphone. He insists his girlfriend is going to call and continues to hang on to hope.

This show is about hope. Producer Orin Wolf stressed that this morning during a cast and creative panel at Philly’s popular Israeli restaurant, Zahav. Interestingly enough Wolf had his wedding at the restaurant many years ago. His now wife was with him at The Other Israel Film Festival when he first saw the movie version of The Band’s Visit. Immediately following the screening, he turned to her and expressed his need to option the movie to turn into a stage play.

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Orin Wolf, Ronnie Malley, David Yazbek, Itamar Moses, Janet Dacal, Sasson Gabay at Zahav

Sasson Gabay appreciated Wolf’s dedication and never imagined he would be doing the show on stage. “Deep in my heart, I thought it was the most insane idea,” he said during the Q&A. It took a lot of courage for Wolf to take a simple story and be so loyal to it. The show portrays the Middle East in a way we don’t always see it. No politics. The Band’s Visit stresses the bond between people, no matter what language we all speak or understand. We all share the same planet.

Ronnie Malley, who plays band member Camal in the show, agrees that this show has no agenda except to co-exist. He grew up understanding that it is more important to be a good neighbor than to be a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, or whatever you are.

Wolf also noted that we live in a world where the meaning of words are being lost. By world leaders. By the internet and social media. The Band’s Visit is asking people to remember that the words they use have meaning.

A simple misspoken word brought the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to the middle of nowhere. Like Come From Away, another musical that was part of this season’s Broadway series at the Kimmel Center, The Band’s Visit finds people in unfamiliar territory and in need of the kindness of strangers. Cultural and language barriers exist no matter where you end up, but warmth and acceptance translates well.

This musical is so important to see. The music is enchanting, the scenes are filled with honesty and heart, and the story has an important message of just being kind to one another no matter where you’re from or what you believe. You can see The Band’s Visit now through January 19th at the Kimmel Center’s Academy of Music. Tickets are available here.

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