Theatre Review: THE BAND’S VISIT at the Academy of Music

A Simple Layover

My first worry was, how are they going to fill the space? From what I had read, The Band’s Visit is a tiny show: almost a play with music, deeply character-driven, low on spectacle. How were they going to make it work in a theatre over twice as large as its broadway house (and over 10 times the size of the off-broadway house where this show premiered) that routinely sees work of a grand scale: operas, ballets, mega-musicals. 

It turns out, at least from the middle of the orchestra section, the show does just fine in the bigger house. I do still think the show is very very small and subtle to be selling seats in the balcony. From the very beginning, the show seems to assert its supposed insignificance.  “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” This self-deprecation infuses the show with the sort of lovely nonchalance of a 12-hour layover. It ends up being not so much a study of character or plot, but of setting and mood.

The setting is the small, fictional Israeli, desert town of Bet Hatikvah. (According to book writer Moses Something it is based on the real town of Yeruham. In this town, the beige concrete buildings, and the desert sun beat down to create a languid lethargy that weaves its inhabitants “Waiting.” The malaise is ruptured when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly buses into town. You see they are headed to Petah Tikvah, but the Hebrew phonemes make this pretty confusing for the Egyptian musicians. No busses can come to get them until the next day so they have to stay the night in the sleepy village. What happens over the next 12 hours…well not much. That is sort of the point. 

In the original production Tony Shaloub and Katrina Lenk, both won Tonys for Lead Performances as Tewfig and Dina. Here they are played with effort by Sasson Gabay and Janet Dacal. They don’t really shine in these parts but do a serviceable job. The supporting cast more than picks up the narrative slack. A scene in which Egyptian ladies man Haled (Joe Joseph) helps the shy Israeli Papi (Adam Gabay) find connection is funny and tender. The pseudo finale, “Answer Me,” led by Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) was truly stunning as was Itzik’s Lullaby sung ably by Pomme Koch. The eponymous band was outstanding. Make sure you stay for a post curtain call encore!

David Cromer’s stunning production features a nimble and very Israeli set by Scott Pask. It is mostly white, so Tyler Micoleau’s lights do a tremendous amount of work. Quite a few moments took my breath away.

While beautiful, humanitarian, and simple, it was hard for me to ignore the naivety of the show’s politics. The world would be fine, it seems to say, if we could just sit around and play music. This ignores and perhaps oversimplifies a region that has a tremendous history of conflict and oppression. For those who don’t mind turning that part of their brain off for a short while, it is a beautiful 95 minutes.

The Band’s Visit runs until January 19, 2020, at the Academy of Music. Tickets can be purchased at https://www.kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets/201920/broadway-philadelphia/the-bands-visit/

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