Review | The Band’s Visit: subtle magic

The Orpheum

The company of The Band’s Visit North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Band’s Visit, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, breaks so many rules for writing musicals—not by being outrageous, but by being not outrageous. It is a musical built on subtleties, just bits and pieces of what is precious about life, no matter where one lives. It is a stunningly graceful and beautiful show, and I loved it.

Unfolding with great care, the story moves at the pace of the little Israeli town where nothing ever happens. Its few residents sing, “Waiting for something … I don’t know … for something to happen … something different” in Waiting, when an Egyptian band appears, scheduled to play a concert the next day in Petah Tikva (“with a P”).

The bus has taken them, instead, to a nowhere town, Beit Hatikva (“with a B”). “See the apartments! Gaze up my café! While you’re here be sure to go back and forth between my café and the apartments. So much to explore!” Dina says with great sarcasm in Welcome to Nowhere.

The Arabic-speaking Egyptians had taken one look at the Israeli soldiers with semi-automatic weapons in the bus station and decided, “Maybe we should speak English.” It’s the first little joke of many little jokes that drift around the possibility of tension arising between the Egyptians and Israelis, who attempt to straighten things out for their visitors and get to know them—via broken English on both sides. The real tension, however, is not in ethnicities, as it turns out, but rather in loneliness and longing, isolation and boredom.

The story, its characters, theme, set, music and lyrics appear to have been created without seams, dissolving into each other like smoke in the clouds. Director David Cromer perfectly melds concept, tone, acting style and technical realization. A giant revolve literally carries the characters from one scene to another, also at a languid pace, “loading up” a new scene and unpacking more emotional potential. Tiny moments suggest … something … and dissipate. Then a song breaks through the veneer of nothingness to reveal a deep emotional landscape with “no edge, no edge, no walls, no border,” Haled (Joe Joseph) sings in Haled’s Song About Love.

Dina is a blatant flirt and tries mightily to extract information from the band’s leader, Tewfiq (James Rana). She finally discovers what they have in common: a love for the music of singer Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif movies, a connection so powerful that the song, “Omar Sharif” falls out of her as stream of consciousness memories—a love song that never mentions love, but comes “floating on a lemon leaf … flying in on a jasmine wind.”

By this time, we are accustomed to the band accompanying the songs, moving in and out of the action, providing visual as well as musical segues. (It plays without intermission, and I can’t imagine it any other way.) The band members are not only marvelously convincing as actors, they’re extraordinary musicians, as well.

The acting, led by the powerhouse presence of Chilina Kennedy as Dina, is so finessed and rooted in the cultural nuances of the piece that I’ve seldom been so convinced by a story. It felt like non-acting, which is the best that acting can be.

A vignette. A boy appears repeatedly, staring at the pay phone, as he has every night for a month, waiting for his girlfriend to call him. Dina sympathizes with “Sammy” (Nick Sacks) and always asks with kindness, “Did she call?” He always answers, “Not yet, but soon.” It’s so small. Hardly a subplot. But oh, do we care! Sammy’s story crescendos into Answer Me, ultimately with the ensemble asking, “Will you answer me? Answer me.” It is, like several songs (among them, more than the “allowed” three ballads, and no, it’s not too many), spare and absolutely clear. What do we have, any of us, without hope?

But mostly things don’t happen—not as they would in most musicals. Tension, longing and isolation persist, but nothing is quite the same at the end, either. It’s like seeing everyday life as a magic trick, one that delights, and then it’s gone.

The Band’s Visit was the recipient of 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It runs through December 15 at the Orpheum, downtown Minneapolis, brought to Twin Cities audiences by the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

You should go. Absolutely.

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