The Band’s Visit brings us harmony in the Middle East

Photo by Michael Brosilow

“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t that important.”

This is how The Band’s Visit begins and, for what it’s worth, it is a completely true statement: there was nothing of major consequence in this little orchestra’s 1996 trip. However, due to an understandable error that resulted in the band’s arrival, not at Pehta Tikva, a cultural center, but instead at Bet Hatikva, a small town isolated in the middle of nowhere, this little event improbably spawned not only a film but a Tony Award-winning musical. 

“Stick a pin in a map of the desert. Build a road to the middle of the desert. Pour cement on the spot in the desert. That’s Bet Hatikva (with a B),” sings Dina, the proprietor of a little cafe near the bus station, explaining to the visitors that they have come to a town she calls “basically bleak and beige and blah, blah, blah.” Sophie Madorski plays the tough yet vibrant Dina, her hardened attitude about her life forged in the fires of desert heat and dull, repetitive sameness. Rom Barkhordar plays Tewfiq, the leader of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, whose quiet, dignified manner brings out the latent romantic in his host. Dina and Tewfiq make an unlikely couple, but then again this is not a romantic comedy. Still, as the band is stuck in Bet Hatikva until the next bus in the morning, they have plenty of time to get to know each other.

Much of the show’s success depends upon Madorski and Barkhordar, who imbue their dynamically different characters—people who under any other circumstances would never have spent an evening together—with the kind of longing for something different that underscores most of the play. Barkhordar’s staid, serene presence contrasts perfectly with Madorski’s charismatic performance as Dina finds herself more and more enthralled by this strange foreigner who is so unlike anyone she has ever met. When she explains to him in the entrancing “Omar Sharif” that she has spent much of her life waiting for something wonderful to happen, you can almost imagine this impossible twosome as a couple.

The Band’s Visit, however, is not When Harry Met Sally, and Tewfiq’s accidental presence in Bat Hatikva is, as the old marketing phrase has it, “for a limited time only.”

In versions of this musical I’ve seen before, the Egyptian orchestra is much bigger than the four uniformed musicians who arrive here with Tewfiq, but director Zi Alikhan has instead cast a troupe of actors who, in many cases, are also musicians. This simple device invites the “orchestra” onto the stage throughout the play and allows them to become individualized, playing significant roles rather than the homogenous music-makers they otherwise could be. And they are uniformly excellent in their roles.

Among the standouts is Armand Akbari’s Haled, a confident young man who doesn’t allow his lack of strong English to get in the way of his flirtatious approaches to Israeli women. Akbari’s beautiful singing voice is featured at one point in an insightful song that utterly changes what we thought we knew about his character, who had until then been more of a joke than anything else. Sam Linda’s Papi, as shy around women as Haled is confident, is a joy in a scene at a roller rink in which he can’t quite seem to force himself to get together with a girl he has a crush on, and he gets one of composer David Yazbek’s funniest songs.

Michael Joseph Mitchell’s sweet middle-aged Avrum presides over a household in which his son Itzik (Dave Honigman) and daughter-in-law Iris (Dana Saleh Omar) struggle with the problems that come with a new baby. (Avrum gets one of the musical’s best songs, an homage to love and music called “The Beat of Your Heart.”) Meanwhile, Harper Caruso plays on our heartstrings as a young woman who spends every night staring at the community’s lone payphone (no cell phones yet) waiting for a call from her girlfriend, from whom she has not heard in months. (This part is scripted for a man, but Caruso, who is a trans woman, is clearly playing female. The casting lends even more pathos to the character.)

These actors, as well as the rest of the cast, have plenty of opportunities to delight the audience as they hang out in the town until late into the evening, enjoying the unexpected break in their itinerary, roller skating, and playing their music, often accompanied by an offstage band playing Yazbek’s lovely, unusual, Arab-flavored score. They even get to show off a bit in a final “concert.”

Director Alikhan uses Writers Theatre’s space well. The stage is awash with lovely, fluid movement choreographed by Sebastiani Romagnolo, and there is even an opportunity near the end for many cast members to move up the stairs into the audience, giving the song “Answer Me,” which is already haunting and beautiful, even more immediacy and power. Afsoon Pajoufar’s scenic design is minimalist, with a single futon or table standing in for an entire apartment and an abstract backdrop allowing for Smooch Medina’s live projections.

With Itamar Moses’ witty book and Yazbek’s music and lyrics, The Band’s Visit is a treat. It is a small, charming slice of life, a quiet and realistic musical clearly aimed at an adult audience, the kind you rarely see on Broadway these days because it defies commercial expectations. There is nothing loud or garish here and very little in the way of spectacle to distract from what is at heart a very human story. No helicopters, no chandeliers, no dancing cats, not even much color to diminish the effect of the tiny “beige” town. It is up to the actors, under Alikhan’s clear guidance, to make the show come alive, and they do. By the time we arrive at that plaintive final song, the audience has been, like the band, guests in this little town, witnessing an evening full of intimate moments among its citizens. This ninety-minute show won’t change your life, and it isn’t realistic to think that this single night would change much for these characters, but you (and they) will remember the emotional experience for a long time, and ultimately that is what good theatre is all about.

The Band’s Visit is now playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe through March 17. Check the Writers Theatre website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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