Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay in "The Band's Visit." Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
When I first saw “The Band’s Visit” three years ago at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, I realized afterward that I’d seen a wonderful show -- a little musical about a lot of little things, a story with heart that would stay with me maybe forever.
Seeing “The Band’s Visit” again this week at the Civic Theatre, where a national touring production of the Tony winner runs is under way, I felt the same way afterward: moved and uplifted.
Then as now, “The Band’s Visit’s” main character, Dina, who runs a café in a village in Israel where nothing much ever happens, tells us that the tale to come is “not important.” It wouldn’t seem so, either, on the surface: A uniformed police orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, turns up by mistake in Dina’s town. With no bus heading out until the next day, the musicians are stranded. Dina, who is lonely and starving for any excitement, anything different, takes them in.
So do the people of Petah Tikva.
What unfolds over 95 minutes may not be important or life-changing, but this is where those aforementioned little things are addressed and where they matter.
Dina (Janet Dacal), who like everyone else in Petah Tikva is always “Waiting” (the show’s scene-setting opening song) for something beyond the endless passing days in the desert, finds in visiting orchestra conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the original film version of “The Band’s Visit” that inspired the musical) an enigmatic but quietly reflective man who strangely fascinates her. He may not be the “Omar Sharif” (Dina’s wistful ballad) of her daydreams and Friday afternoon movies, but for a day and an evening he is her escape.
Tewfiq it turns out has a darker past than his laconic, military manner suggests, and through Dina his vulnerability emerges as much as it can.
Young villager Papi (Coby Getzug), meanwhile, is smitten with Julia (Layan Elwazani), but terrified of even talking to women. “Papi Hears the Ocean” is his hilarious lament to the worldly wise visiting trumpet player Haled (the terrific Joe Joseph), who afterward advises him in the jazzy “Haled’s Song About Love.”
In the household of Itzik (Clay Singer) and Iris (Kendal Hartse), not even the presence of a new baby can quell the discord between the two. It takes a band member’s unfinished concerto turned into a lullaby to bring if not reconciliation, then respite from the pain.
And alone in the village, a young man (Joshua Grosso) waits and waits and waits by a public telephone booth for a call from his true love.
This all adds up to … life. That’s the magic of “The Band’s Visit,” which touches without wallowing in sentiment and which relies on the humanity of its characters to help us recognize our own.
But what makes “The Band’s Visit” soar is its music: the memorable David Yazbek score that includes not only “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love” but the beautiful “Answer Me” that begins with the Telephone Guy alone, waiting, and comes to include the rest of the cast.
The Middle Eastern music performed by the ensemble band – Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis and Wick Simmons – is the real soundtrack of this show. Hearing it transports you to another time and place, somewhere perhaps you never knew existed inside you.
With as talky a book as “The Band’s Visit” possesses, it is subject to the Civic Theatre’s less than hospitable acoustics for dialogue. It’s great that so many people are getting the chance to see this musical, probably for the first time, but I couldn’t help but wish it were being produced in a more intimate venue.
No matter. “The Band’s Visit” is a treasure. See it while you still have the chance. It closes on Sunday, March 6.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.