Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Strangers in the Wrong Town: 'The Band's Visit' is Brief, Reserved but Rather Pleasant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Band's Visit
a recent musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru September 15

The Band’s Visit is a lovely musical.

It’s not a musical I absolutely love, but its merits are many, and I found myself a bit more smitten in seeing it for the second time, on its first national tour, than I had in catching it on Broadway in late 2017. 

Though only a 90-minute, one-act affair, the musical is a tad too slow for me, and while I appreciate—especially post Once, Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, etc.—that first-rate musicals can have considerable dramatic heft and a lack of chorus lines, high-energy production numbers, lavish choreography, etc., The Band’s Visit is really rather low-key.

This kept me from buoyantly embracing it on Broadway—where I had seen an up-against-flying-home matinee after attending Springsteen on Broadway the night before—and makes the upper balcony of Chicago’s spacious Cadillac Palace not the idyllic perch from which to appreciate all the tenderness, especially as Israeli and Egyptian accents are employed.

As they should be, given that the musical--based on a 2007 film of the same name--tells the story of an Egyptian Ceremonial Police Orchestra, invited to play at an Arab community center in Petah Tikvah, Israel, that instead winds up in the sleepy desert town of Bet Hatikva.

Somewhat similar in storyline and underlying themes to another fine musical of recent vintage, Come From Away, The Band's Visit likewise chronicles how villagers treat their unexpected guests.

Nicely directed by David Cromer--who, like me, hails from Skokie, IL--the musical is humane and heartwarming, quite welcome at this time...or anytime.

On tour, Sasson Gabay stars at the leader and conductor of the Egyptian band, Tewfiq Zakaria, as he did in the movie. The great Tony Shalhoub played the role on Broadway and won a Tony Award, but Gabai is likewise terrific.

So too is Chilina Kennedy as Dina, a single woman who runs a small cafe in Bet Hatikva. Also earning a Tony, Katrina Lenk was brilliant on Broadway but this tour clearly has been skillfully cast with quality talent.

With the bus needed to move the band along not due until the next day, Dina and other locals let the musicians stay with them overnight, making for some nice scenes of interaction and adjustment from both parties.

Reference Wikipedia if you want a full plot summary and run-down of characters. I'll share simply that there is a nice scene with a couple of the Egyptians interacting with the Israeli Itzik (Pomme Koch), his wife and father-in-law, and another that involves the visiting Haled (Joe Joseph) helping Papi (Adam Gabay) address his bashfulness around women.

The score, with music & lyrics by David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) features some excellent instrumental pieces by the band members, as well as some quite nice songs, including "Waiting," "Welcome to Nowhere," "It Is What It Is," "Beat of Your Heart" and "Omar Sharif."

Several cast members have fine vocal moments, but Kennedy--who played Carole King as a replacement in Beautiful--shines brightest in this regard.

While several of the songs here are beautiful, many are more touching than vibrant or soaring.

It's great that Broadway musicals, including the most highly decorated ones--this show won 10 Tony Awards out of 11 nominations--come in many varieties, and The Band's Visit should strike a nerve, particularly among those who don't love over-the-top, big boisterous "tuners."

Yet while there is much to appreciate, especially in this richly enacted touring rendition--pushing it to a @@@@1/2, up 1/2@ from my perception on Broadway--I still would have liked a tad more oom-pa-pa in The Band's Visit.

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