by Lynn on September 19, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music and lyrics by David Yazbek

Book by Itamar Moses

Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin

Directed by David Cromer

Choreographed by Patrick McCollum

Set by Scott Pask

Costumes by Sarah Laux

Lighting by Tyler Micoleau

Sound by Kai Harada

Cast: Jennifer Apple

Mike Cefalo

Adam Gabay

Sasson Gabay

Marc Ginsburg

Kendal Hartse

Joe Joseph

Sara Kapner

Chilina Kennedy

Pomme Koch

Ahmad Maksoud

Ronnie Malley

James Rana

David Studwell

A beautiful production, in spite of some concerns, of a heart-squeezing musical.

The Story.  It’s 1996. A group of musicians fly from Egypt to Israel to play a gig in the burgeoning city of Petah Tikva to open an Arab Cultural Centre. No one meets them at the airport so they take a bus, but alas they arrive in Bet Hatikva in error (there but for some dodgy pronunciation go they….). Bet Hatikva is not burgeoning. It’s a sad little desert town with a café, some apartments, a roller skating rink and one pay phone. The musicians lead by Tewfiq are awkward but are eventually welcomed by the reticent Israelis lead by Dina who owns the café. It’s only an over night stay before they can get the bus to the right city. Everyone’s life changes in that short time.

The Production.  Director David Cromer is fastidious in establishing the almost comatose attitude of the bored Israelis and the awkward, uncertain Egyptians. Cromer knows how to bring out the humour and heartache of situations in body language, reactions of characters, a simple movement of the set among other things.

Scott Pask’s sandy-brown simple set of the café and the surrounding buildings beautifully conveys how rudimentary the town of Bet Hatikva is. There is nothing to do there but wait, as “Waiting”, the first of David Yazbek’s exquisite songs suggests. Generally the townsfolk are waiting for something to happen. A revolve in the stage brings in the only payphone and the Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) who stands in front of it daily, waiting for his girlfriend to call. Dina (Chilina Kennedy) always asks if she called and he replies with faith “Soon”. They might wait for love, friendship, the ability to talk to a woman without gagging in nerves, but still it’s waiting.

The arrival of the Alexandrian Ceremonial Police Orchestra, starched and at attention, resplendent in their powder blue uniforms, does cause a stir for the Israelis of Bet Hatikva who are in worn t-shirts, jeans and the like. (Kudos to Sarah Laux for her costumes).

There is a natural wariness between these Egyptians and Israelis—and there is a language problem in some cases. But there is a basic humanity between them. The Egyptians are far from home and in the wrong place and the Israelis can and do help them. There is no hotel so the townspeople billet the orchestra. They then speak the same language of music, family, love and home.

Dina takes in Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), the taciturn orchestra leader and Haled (Pomme Koch) a quiet charmer who thinks every woman has beautiful eyes.  Dina tells Tewfiq that she and her mother lived for those times they could watch Omar Sharif in a film or listen to the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum.

As Dina, Chilina Kennedy oozes sensuality and longing. Her singing of “Omar Sharif” illuminates how Dina is transported to another world because of his films and Oum Kalthoum’s singing.  It’s a wonderful performance, laid-back, almost insouciant in attitude. But Dina is full of passion, pent-up yearning, regret and an ache because of missed chances. And of course Kennedy sings like a dream.

Sasson Gabay played Tewfiq in the film and recreates that role for the musical. While Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq is upright and stiff-backed I had difficulty understanding anything he said because he doesn’t enunciate. Often I couldn’t tell if he was speaking English or Arabic. He tends to mumble, not a good thing. Occasionally the orchestra drowns out a scene on stage, I think particularly of the scene in the roller skating arena. Balance of sound is always a challenge, but it can be met.

Joe Joseph as Haled is a man who can rise to the occasion. He feels awkward in this foreign land but uses charm to break down barriers. His singing of “Haled’s Song About Love” is tender, understated and heart-squeezing.

Comment. The Band’s Visit is based on the screenplay of the same name. It began Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2016. It transferred to Broadway in 2017 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. This is the national tour of the musical. It’s a beautiful creation of music and words that illuminate the many similarities of these two peoples—Israelis and Arabs. At its heart The Band’s Visit is a quiet embrace of what makes us human.

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Sept. 18, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 20, 2019.

Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)

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