There are no bad songs in The Band’s Visit (★★★★★). In fact, the 10-time Tony-winning musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, has enough memorable, lushly romantic, or sardonically funny tunes that it might be hard to choose a favorite. It seems every scene in the show — based on the eponymous 2007 film about an 8-man band from Egypt stuck for a night in a tiny, Israeli desert town — is unerringly complemented by just the right musical mood.
David Comer’s Broadway staging, currently on a tour that’s just arrived at the Kennedy Center, also beautifully fuses day in the life storytelling with the naturally performative aspects of onstage musicians. Comer and choreographer Patrick McCollum dance, turn, and revolve the impassioned cast around Scott Pask’s evocative sets with subtle, sometimes deadpan, precision. And the relaxed rhythms create a gentle sense of motion, despite a story largely about waiting in place.
The band gets to do their waiting in comfort, at least. Members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, they’re invited into the homes and lives of the generous, albeit not that cheery, residents of fictional Bet Hatikva. No one they encounter tells them to go back to where they came from.
These welcoming residents — café owner Dina (Chilina Kennedy) and her two servers Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (Adam Gabay) — are waiting, too, for something, anything to happen. They might be waiting forever in this lethargic, little town. As it turns out, Bet Hatikva is not to be mistaken for Petah Tikva, the thriving industrial city where the band had intended to travel for a concert.
Instead, stranded in sleepy Bet Hatikva, the band partakes in the somehow dreamy sense of going nowhere fast that permeates every life and building. The story, with a book by Itamar Moses, is simple yet gloriously rich, and captures the ephemeral yet intense connections made between strangers. The currents they generate could leave any or all of them changed for years beyond the band’s unplanned visit. The band’s strict but kind leader, Colonel Tewfik Zakaria (Sasson Gabay, Adam’s real-life father), finds himself particularly moved by the connection he forges with outwardly cynical Dina.
Fresh off her recent stint on Broadway playing Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Kennedy is solid as the guarded café owner. She and Gabay don’t set the desert ablaze with their romantic chemistry, but they find the characters’ common ground. Gabay might not have originated the role of Tewfik onstage but he did actually star as the colonel in the original film, so it’s no surprise that he wears the role with an authority that persuasively defines Tewfik as a man who doesn’t easily make new friends. Were it not for these exceptional, disorienting circumstances, the colonel might never have allowed himself to make any connection at all.
In addition to expressing themselves eloquently in song, the characters here are well-drawn and credibly performed. As the band’s wannabe lothario Haled, Joe Josephs is a comic charmer. His alluring spin through the jazzy “Haled’s Song About Love” melts the ice.
The true comedic highlight among these songs, however, is Adam Gabay’s rendition of “Papi Hears the Ocean,” a funky lament of his character’s lack of skill as a ladies’ man. Gabay nails the tricky, scale-descending number. Seemingly less tricky technically, “Itzik’s Lullaby,” a plaintive reverie about the café worker’s hopes and setbacks, proves an equally effective showcase number for Koch, graduating from a role as standby in the show’s original Broadway cast.
A lilting love song from Itzik to his wife Anna (Jennifer Apple) and their infant son, “Itzik’s Lullaby” shares a perfectly loping tempo with another standout ballad, “Answer Me,” sung by a young man who’s also spending his life waiting in Bet Hatikva. Played by Mike Cefalo, the kid, known as Telephone Guy, devotes himself to that brighter shade of waiting, called anticipation. He’ll wait day and night for his love to call, if that’s what it takes. Some treasures must be sought, while others, with patience, can be counted on to come to you.
The Band’s Visit is just such a treasure, to be relished up close before the production resumes its travels to distant lands.
[Check for discount tickets to The Band’s Visit]
The Band’s Visit runs through August 4 at Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $45 to $149. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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