- The Band’s Visit
- Written by Itamar Moses
- Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
- Genre Musical
- Directed by David Cromer
- Starring Chilina Kennedy, Sasson Gabay, Pomme Koch, Joe Joseph, Mike Cefalo, Adam Gabay
- Company Mirvish Productions
- Venue Ed Mirvish Theatre
- City Toronto
- Runs to Sunday, Oct. 20
The standout song in last year’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The Band’s Visit is a ballad called Omar Sharif. Sung by Dina, an Israeli small-town café owner, it’s a nostalgic reverie about a childhood spent listening to the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and watching the movies of the dashing Egyptian actor Sharif.
It’s a gorgeous piece, gorgeously performed by Toronto’s Chilina Kennedy in the show’s North American tour, now playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Songwriter David Yazbek endows it with evocative lyrics about “lemon leaves” and “jasmine-scented wind,” and lush, Middle Eastern-influenced music as liquid and dreamy as Sharif’s famous brown eyes.
But even as we’re swept away by it, the underlying message is clear: There’s nothing like art to bring together different cultures, religions and, in the case of Israel and Egypt, former enemies.
The Band’s Visit is a musical about such simple human connections and commonalities, a gentle tale imbued with wry humour, great tenderness and an ineffable sense of longing. It’s not a leap-to-your-feet-for-a-standing-O kind of show, but one that slowly, subtly works its quiet magic on you.
You can see why it scooped up 10 Tonys and a Grammy for its score – in a Broadway-musical context, it’s a refreshing, rare bird, similar to unexpectedly encountering a charming foreign film at the suburban multiplex. In fact, Itamar Moses’s script is based on a foreign film – the popular 2008 Israeli comedy of the same title. But perhaps inevitably for a show about loves unrequited and dreams deferred, it leaves you just a touch unsatisfied, wanting more.
Kennedy’s Dina sings her ode to Omar and Umm for Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), the leader of a travelling Egyptian police band from Alexandria that is supposed to be opening a new Arab cultural centre in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva. Instead, thanks to a case of mispronunciation at the ticket window, they’ve taken a bus to Bet Hatikva, a godforsaken little town in the desert. Not only does Bet Hatikva have no cultural centre, it has no culture at all – as its bored-to-death residents bitterly assure their visitors in a wonderful opening song, Welcome to Nowhere, that’s akin to the comical-cynical antithesis to Come From Away’s rousing Welcome to the Rock.
Similar to the Newfoundlanders in that show, the Israelis offer hospitality to their unexpected guests – although with the dull, take-it-or-leave-it attitude of people inured even to the excitement of strangers. But the band must stay the night – there isn’t another bus out of town until morning – and as they get to know their hosts through the lingua franca of broken English, friendships are tentatively formed.
Dina, whose ennui hides an emotional hunger, latches on to the widowed Tewfiq, a gracious older gentleman in stark contrast to her boorish sometime lover. Kennedy is so sexy and soulful that you’d be happy just to watch her slice watermelons. But oh, she does sing – rapturously, caressing Yazbek’s sinuous songs as a warm desert wind.
Gabay, who played Tewfiq in the original film, is the picture of ramrod restraint, only gradually unbending to bare his heart – just a little bit – to Dina.
Elsewhere, Tewfiq’s men bond joyfully with a former musician, awkwardly witness the marital tensions of a young couple and, in the case of Haled (Joe Joseph), the band’s trumpet-playing Lothario, dispense romantic advice to the hilariously girl-shy Papi (Adam Gabay) at the local roller rink. Haled is a Chet Baker fan, and sure enough, his lessons in love come via a playful jazz ballad, sung Baker-style, by the silky-smooth Joseph.
Haled is the most forward of the Egyptians. The others, polite guests, take a back seat to their noisy Israeli hosts. Most poignant are the scenes between the clarinetist, Camal (Ronnie Malley), and the unhappily married couple, Itzik and Iris (Pomme Koch and Kendal Hartse, both excellent) – the slacker Itzik finding his stasis reflected in Camal, who has composed the overture for a concerto he has never been able to finish.
But then stasis is the prevailing condition in this town, where love seems to be either absent or a memory, where the exemplar is the pathetic dude (Mike Cefalo) who waits endlessly in front of a payphone for a girlfriend’s promised call. Yazbek gives him the show’s sweet cri de coeur, Answer Me, and Cefalo sings it with heart-rending brio.
Director David Cromer’s staging unwinds with unhurried precision. Scenic designer Scott Pask’s vision of Bet Hatikva is a concrete-box purgatory in washed-out hues of green and brown, with a revolving stage that makes literal its monotonous circle of life. But Tyler Micoleau’s lighting slowly transforms it, moving from the glare of a sun-baked desert day to the softness of an enchanting desert night.
The Band’s Visit is not a musical for all tastes, but if you attune yourself to its languid beauty, you’ll find yourself, like Dina in Omar Sharif, with honey in your ears and spice in your mouth.
The Band’s Visit continues to Oct. 20. (mirvish.com)