By Lynn Venhaus
Simple yet profound, “The Band’s Visit” is a disarming, charming experience.
It may take a little bit to win you over, but it certainly does – with an invigorating elegance and its big heart, a great example of effective less-is-more on stage.
Based on a 2007 film, “The Band’s Visit” is not your average flashy big-budget spectacle, and that’s one reason it’s so refreshing and relatable. The story is about ordinary people, their hopes and desires to belong. They just happen to be considered “enemies” because of where they live – Arabs and Jews – but are they really that different?
Through a bus station-cultural language miscommunication, a traveling Egyptian Police Band winds up stranded in a small town in the Negev desert — Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikvah. They are supposed to perform at an Arab cultural center, but another bus is not available until the next day, so, residents take them in overnight. They share shelter, meals, music and conversation over the course of one day.
The winner of 10 Tony Awards – and nominated for 11 – in 2018, this musical, now playing at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis until March 8, conveys what made the off-Broadway show and its move to Broadway such sensations. It is one of only four musicals in Broadway history to ever win “The Big Six” – musical, director, composer, book, actor and actress – at The Tonys.
The staging is innovative, and turntables are used effectively, especially during a roller-rink date scene. Humor is key too, as in the park having one bench.
Besides endearing performances from its first-rate cast, the music and lyrics by David Yazbek are unforgettable. The dynamic, poetic world-music score, with jazz influences, features an assortment of memorable songs – starting with the humorous “Waiting” and “Middle of Nowhere,” and wrapping up with the haunting “Answer Me.”
Make sure you stay after the curtain call for the band’s upbeat finale, their ‘concert’ performance.
The cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album in 2019, and they won a Daytime Emmy Award for a performance of “Answer Me” on The Today Show.
The Fox Theatre is one of the 32-city stops on the first national tour, which began June 25, 2019. “The Band’s Visit” played off-Broadway for a little more than a year, beginning Dec. 8, 2016, and moved to Broadway Oct. 7, 2017. After 589 performances and 36 previews, it closed April 7, 2018.
Combined with book writer Itamar Moses’s witty script, “The Band’s Visit” emphasizes connection between people and different cultures – if we all listen to each other.
While the townsfolk desperately want to find meaning in their lives, we are moved by those universal themes of longing, loss and loneliness that everyone relates to – and how music is the thread that unites us all.
And what simple kind-hearted gestures and compassion can mean in times of need. This humanistic approach is how it captivates the audience. After all, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, Barbra Streisand once sang to Omar Sharif in “Funny Girl,” — and a song is named after the Egyptian-born 1960s movie star here.
The ensemble features 14 people, and the tight-knit company is adept at conveying bonding and breaking barriers. Janet Dacal is terrific as a lively Dina, a lonely café owner whose tough and feisty demeanor masks a heart of gold. She befriends the band’s conductor, Tewfiq Zakaria, played by Sasson Gabay, who replaced Tony winner Tony Shalhoub on Broadway and originated the role in the 2007 movie.
As he becomes more comfortable, he shares a personal tragedy with her. Their relationship throughout the show is a high point.
Also noteworthy are Joe Joseph as the likable trumpet player Haled, who loves American jazz musician Chet Baker; Danny Burgos as the timid café worker Papi, who Haled helps out on a date; and Pomme Koch as the other café worker Itzik, who brings clarinet player Simon home to dine with his family and they deal with his crying baby.
Known only as the “Telephone Guy,” Mike Cefalo is funny in a quirky role, and then shows off a beautiful voice when he starts off “Answer Me.”
The highly skilled band musicians must be mentioned too, because they add such a vitality to the show: Adrian Ries, conductor/keyboard; Adam McDonald, associate conductor/keyboard; Tony Bird, violin; George Crotty, cello; Evan Francis, clarinet, saxophone, flute; Roger Kashou, darbouka/riq; Ronnie Malley, oud/guitar; Shai Wetzer, drums/Arabic percussion; and Alex Farha, musician swing.
In small and subtle moments, this pleasant interlude speaks volumes. And that poignancy in a tidy 90-minutes is a life-affirming way to exit the theater and enter a wary world.
The Fox Theatre presents “The Band’s Visit” Feb. 25 through March 8 at the Fabulous Fox, 527 N. Grand. For tickets, visit www.metrotix.com or call 618-534-1111. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.