WHAT MAKES A MUSICAL great? Is it based on how many awards the show wins? The technical prowess of the designers? The accomplished performances of the actors? Well, if you’ve bought tickets for the national tour of The Band’s Visit — which I saw at Norfolk, Virginia’s Chrysler Hall in October — it doesn’t matter. The show delivers all these qualities and more. The writing, by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, tells a heartfelt and unexpectedly rapid tale of one night in the fictional Israeli town named Bet Hatikva.

Christopher Martell

Christopher Martell

When the members of the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, better known as “The Band” of the show’s title, arrive in Tel Aviv, Israel, they expect to be greeted by friendly faces and an escort to the Arab Cultural Center. However, upon realizing no such courtesies will be extended, the older leader of the band, Tewfiq (played in the touring production by Sasson Gabay), orders Haled (Joe Joseph), a younger member, to order tickets to Petah Tikvah, where they are scheduled to perform. Due to his accent, Haled mistakenly orders tickets to Bet Hatikva.

Upon arriving in the wrong town, they encounter Dina (Bligh Voth), an attractive Jewish woman who runs a local café. She tells the band that the next bus out of Bet Hatikva does not arrive until morning. The rest of the story takes off from there. In this 90-minute musical, the audience is moved through the ensuing drama to witness the relationships that form during the band’s single night’s stay. The show’s compressed timeline is somewhat reminiscent of Come From Away in that the cast performs such a moving and profoundly human tale that although the storyline only spans 12 hours, it seems to cover a decade’s worth of tension and character development.

After the sun sets, the audience gets whisked away into the lives and homes of the townspeople. The ensuing night’s musical numbers range from comedic to incredibly emotional and soul rending. Usually a musical has a few standout songs; in The Band’s Visit, every song is as intense as the last as the audience is bombarded with mystical vocals, accompanied by the onstage band. While much of the music has a traditional Middle Eastern feel, jazz is also employed, adding aesthetic and cultural complexity to the characters.

Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq and Chilina Kennedy as Dina in the touring production of The Band's Visit.
Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq and Chilina Kennedy as Dina in the touring production of The Band’s Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

There were many standout vocal performances by Joe Joseph (“Haled’s Song About Love”) and David Studwell (“The Beat of Your Heart”). Studwell’s portrayal of Avrum was easily among the most moving and interesting aspects of the show, both in how perfectly he played his character and in his support for his scene partners. Studwell knows when and how to perform in a way that feeds and spotlights other cast members. By far the most powerful moment in the show comes during the blistering ensemble chorus in “Answer Me,” which represents a breaking point in the characters’ tensions and leaves the audience awestruck. This chilling ballad seems to crescendo for its duration while perfectly underscoring a theme of the show: what it means to be truly alone.

The vocal performances in The Band’s Visit are impeccable and by far the highlight of the show. However, this is not to undercut other elements that went into creating this 10-time Tony Award winner. The set is incredibly intimate, and the actors make use of every inch of available space to believably create multiple areas and scenes at once. The set centers around a revolving 25-foot tall building designed to host multiple locations through moving walls and doors. This helps maintain the focused intimacy of the production while allowing versatility for quick scene changes. It might even make the audience wonder why the only Tony for which the show was nominated that it didn’t win was for set design. Overall, the visual design elements (set, lighting, costumes, props) all meshed perfectly to provide the right visual context without distracting from the nuanced performances.

Cast members from The Band's Visit.
Cast members from The Band’s Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Something rather lacking, however, was the choreography and blocking. Theatregoers looking for fast-paced music combined with intricate, mind-boggling dancing should not consider this show. While the lack of dancing in general fits the somber, lonely tone of The Band’s Visit — and the incredible vocal talent certainly offsets the absence of big dance numbers — the audience was often looking at a relatively stagnant stage.

The Band’s Visit accomplishes something profound. By focusing on the loneliness in the hearts of strangers, the story explores the uniquely human capacity to find common ground by sharing common feelings, especially through art. The show bridges gaps among characters with little to nothing in common except their loneliness and their love of music. The Band’s Visit is an emotional story born out of sincere human qualities found deep within the hearts of everyone. The show is so relatable that anyone with a passion for life will enjoy themselves and will leave the theatre singing along.

This story was written as part of the Thespian Criticworks program. Learn more about Thespian Criticworks online.

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