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Review: 'The Band's Visit' turns the theater into a garden of sound

ASU Gammage's fourth show of the season whispers a song of loss and romance


A scene from the musical "The Band's Visit" performed on Sunday, June, 23, 2019.

"The Band’s Visit" forces you to listen harder than any other show, to drink deeply of the joy and the loneliness baked throughout. 

Rather than exciting you with over-the-top dance numbers and high-octane belting, the show embraces silence, with multiple scenes absent of any music or dialogue, leaving audiences desperate for the next pluck of a string.

The show follows an Egyptian band, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, on their journey to Israel for a concert, but a linguistic mixup at the bus terminal sends them to Bet Hatikva, a small town in the middle of nowhere, rather than the similarly named Petah Tikva.

The band’s leader, Tewfiq (played by Sasson Gabay), realizes their dilemma when he asks a local cafe owner, Dina (standby Hannah Shankman), for directions. She then explains where they are and that they are stuck there until the next bus comes the following morning. Suddenly stranded, Dina opens up her home and offers to help find other locals to take in the band for the night. 

Tewfiq and the easy-going Haled (Joe Joseph) stay with Dina while Camal (Yoni Avi Battat) and Simon (James Rana) spend the night with the new father Itzik (Clay Singer) and his family.  

As day slowly turns to night, the plot turns into three storylines: Dina decides to take Tewfiq out on the town, Haled joins Papi (Coby Getzug) on a double date to the roller rink and Camal and Simon stay with Itzik, his wife Iris (Kendal Hartse) and his father-in-law Avrum (David Studwell) for dinner. 

In the subtext of every interaction is the long and rocky history between neighbors Israel and Egypt, with the controversial beginning of Israel's statehood leading to multiple wars and living conditions of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied zones. Although Egypt was the first country to recognize Israel in 1979, the relationship since has been characterized as a “cold peace” with very few relations outside of military operations.

But the conflict is never made explicit, leaving the subtleties of the characters’ dialogue lost on some. While there is never outright hostility, there is level of distrust between two strangers. 

The strange and unfamiliar feeling is a part of nearly every scene, in particular those between Dina and Tewfiq, as she opens up to this quiet, closed-off man and they discover just how much they have in common.

Dina sings about how "the ship from Egypt always came / Sailing in on radio waves" in "Omar Sharif" when she and her mother would listen to Egyptian singer Umm Kulthūm and watch movies starring Omar Sharif. She was entranced by this taste of Arabic culture as a child and Tewfiq could share in those memories with her, recounting scenes with Dina over dinner.

The relationship between Dina and Tewfiq is the core of the show and even stronger than in the 2007 film the musical adapts, also titled "The Band’s Visit." The movie tells the exact same story, just without any of the singing. The emotional foundation is built upon by Tewfiq’s actor, Gabay, who reprised his role for the national tour and finds even more depth in the character on stage than on screen.

This evolution is made most clear and most heartbreaking in "Itgara’a," a song that follows Dina asking him how it feels "to do music." Unable to express it in words, he begins faux-conducting and singing a hymn in Arabic, that in English is the crux of the show, "When you drink, drink deeply / Drink deeply of the moonlight / drink deeply of the dark / of the loneliness/of the joy."

Dina falls back into the same trance she described in "Omar Sharif," mimicking his movements and inviting the audience into the wonder they didn’t see coming, "Nothing is as beautiful as something that you don’t expect." 

It’s clear why "The Band’s Visit" swept the 2018Tony Awards winning 10 awards, including Best Musical — beating out "Mean Girls," "Frozen" and "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical." It pulls you into a dreary world and tells you one of the most fanatical stories you’ll see on stage. 

With a Gammage season as star-studded as this one, including "Hamilton," "Hadestown," "Come from Away" and "Mean Girls." "The Band’s Visit" is an essential viewing for any musical theater fan and anyone looking for something magic.

"The Band’s Visit" plays at ASU Gammage Feb. 8-13, with tickets ranging between $10-$174.

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