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A CurtainUp DC Review
The Band's Visit

Welcome to nowhere.—Dina.
Sasson Gabay leads the band (Photo by Evan Zimmerman)
At the Kennedy Center last night the halls were filled with teens from Minnesota. Many of them, I would imagine, were seeing a play or musical (other than their high school's production of Our Town or Annie) in a legit theater for the first time. How fortunate for them (and the rest of the audience) that what they saw was The Band's Visit, an exquisite chamber musical about the power of love and music that is a truly refreshing change from the usual Broadway-branded fare of glitz and kitsch. While the KenCen's Eisenhower Theater is far too big for the show, the good news is that its 1100 plus seats mean that more people have the opportunity to witness this very special and unique piece of theater.

Based on Eran Kolirin's 2007 movie of the same title, written for the stage by Itamar Moses with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, The Band's Visit won ten, count 'em, Tonys. It deserved every one of them.

The story, set in Israel in 1996, is simple and subtle: the Alexandria (Egypt, not neighboring northern Virginia) Ceremonial Band, a well-dressed (Sarah Laux designed their blue uniforms) but not particularly distinguished group, is en route to a gig in Petah Tikva. However, they get on the wrong bus, arriving late at night in Bet Hatikva instead. The "B" says Dina (Chilina Kennedy in a pitch perfect performance), the self-appointed leader of the miniscule community, stands for "boring," "blah," "it's a not very important place." Nevertheless, the band's leader, Tewfiq ( Sasson Gabay, who starred in the original movie), proudly says to his musicians that they are representing their country an d that there will be no mistakes.

After their original suspicions, the Israelis who live in Bet Hatikva—- a married couple who are fighting, a forlorn guy who waits by the pay phone for his girlfriend to call, a shy bachelor who has to be tutored in the art of romance — warm to their overnight visitors. The Israelis become good hosts who share food and drink and laughs in their only mutual language, broken English. It is a tribute to David Cromer's sensitive direction that even when characters are speaking in their native languages the meaning is not lost on the audience. A small gesture here, a facial expression there say all that needs to be said.

What also comes through loud and clear are native qualities. The Israelis are brassy, ballsy, argumentative. The Egyptians are acquiescent, solemn (of course that might have had something to do with their being on "enemy" territory) and accepting the power of their leader. All differences between the two cultures and language are transcended in David Yazbek's score which is filled with melodies that reference both Arab and Israeli music — listen for the oud —with a little clarinet a la Chet Baker thrown in. The finale, when the Band finally gets to perform as a group rather than the solos, duets and trios that preceded, is heartfelt by both the players and the audience.

Yazbek's lyrics complement the music perfectly particularly when Dina sings "It Is What It Is," "Omar Sharif," and Haled's "Song About Love." The ensemble works as an ensemble should — together — while making room for vignettes that are very touching in spite of their brevity. Scott Pask's scenery which includes a revolving stage evoke the dusty, dingy buildings likely to be found in a tiny community in a bleak desert as well as a very '60's unchic disco where dancers sporting rollerblades circle the dukebox to the song "Sunny." Tyler Micoleau's lighting adds greatly to the ambiance.

In previous productions directed by David Cromer, The Band's Visit ran without intermission for 90 minutes. The current version, also directed by Cromer, starts very slowly and clocks in at 100 minutes. While Bet Hatikva may be boring to its few denizens, the audience recognizes that it is a tribute to the capacity of humans to connect, no matter what their nationality or language.

For someone who loves good theatre, it was a treat to witness how the kids in the balcony were moved. After the band's last chord, they as well as the rest of the audience sprung to their feet, many with tears in their eyes. It was the kind of theatrical experience one wishes for. Fortunately, many others will be able to enjoy The Band's Visit as Washington, DC is just the first stop on a 30-city US tour with rumors of a production in London next year.

Elyse Sommer reviewed the show both when it premiered at the Atlantic Theatre in Chelsea— review here and when it transferred to Broadway —review here .

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The Band's Visit
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Set Design by Scott Pask
Costume Design by Sarah Laux
Music Supervisors Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow
Cast: chilina Kennedy (Dina); Sasson Gabay (Tewfiq); Pomme Koch (Itzik); Joe Joseph (Haled); Mike Cefalo (Telephone Guy); Adam Gabay (Papi); Ronnie Malley (Camal); David Studwell (Avrum); Jennifer Apple (Anna); Marc Ginsburg (Sammy); Kendal Hartse (Iris); Sara Kapner (Julia); James Rana (Simon); Or Schraiber (Zelger); the Band: Rick Bertone (Conductor/Keyboard); Adrian Ries (Associate Conductor/Keyboard); Tony Bird (violin); George Crotty (cello); Evan Francis (Clarinet/Saxophone/Flute); Roger Kashou (Darbouka/Riq); Ronnie Malley (Oud/Guitar); Mark Van Ziegler (Electric and Acoustic Bass); Shai Wetzer ( Drums/Arabic Percussion); Alex Farha (Musical Swing.)

Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission. Kennedy Center,; Performances July 9 to August 4, 2019. For information of the US tour which will visit 30 cities visit Reviewed by Susan Davidson at July 11, 2019 performance.

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