The Band’s Visit, a small musical that may well charm you with its smallness
DETROIT, MI–The Band’s Visit, which had a pre-pandemic run on Broadway and has resumed a national tour, has a reputation of being a ‘dull’ show. One critic actually used the word “dullsville” to describe the town in which the story is set. But adjust your expectations, and you might just enjoy this theatrical amuse-bouche.
Now playing at The Fisher Theatre, the play, by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 film of the same name. The story follows an old formula of what kind of effect a stranger will have on a staid, sleepy community. In this case, it is a troupe of strangers in the form of an Egyptian Police band that has traveled to the small, dull town of Bet Katikva, Israel to play for the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. When no one knows the official who purportedly invited the band, the members settle in for a waiting game to weigh their next moves. They lack money to just get on a plane and go back to Egypt.
So, they are in Bet Katikva for one night. They get invited to eat and sleep at a forlorn little eatery at the airport bus station run by Dina (Janet Dacal), who is world-weary and glib about how dull and uneventful the town is. The arrival of the band is clearly one of the most interesting things to happen in some time. The situation is fraught, of course. An Egyptian group of Muslim musicians arriving in Israel. But there is hardly a nod in this story to that cultural/political divide. No mention of the Talmud. No mention of the Quran. Just a bunch of people who share the state of being at loose ends, and a desire to be somewhere else.
Among the band members are three who we get to the know the most: Haled (Joe Joseph), a Trumpeter and rake whose come-on line is to ask women if they know Chet Baker’s music; Simon (James Rana), a clarinetist and composer of an unfinished (and barely started) concerto; Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), leader of the band. It is with Tewfiq that Dina comes to fancy. Though what he has to offer besides being sensitive and not one of the local denizens is hard to pin down. She is game to share a bed with him, but the urge is not much developed in the play.
The Band’s Visit is not a musical in the sense of what most people expect, but it has 13 musical numbers, some of which seem a bit forced on the story. The songs fit the story, but none will leave you humming one of them in the parking lot.
When the show hit the New York stage, descriptions like “slyly seductive” and “sweet awakenings” “were intoned. And it did very well at the Tony Awards–ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score. Trying hard to not take to much away from the show and its accolades, but the competition that year was Mean Girls, SpongeBob Squarepants and Frozen. It would have had a far tougher time in a different year against recent shows like Hadestown, Aint Too Proud, Come From Away, etc.
For all the thinness of the story and bare traces of plot, there is something charming about The Band’s Visit. I can see how critics and some patrons root for the show and the story. But there is a question that comes to mind about half-way through the 90-minute play: What is this show actually trying to be?
Perhaps that is the charm. It’s just a pretty simple, small-plate story. It isn’t capitalizing on a Disney movie, nor is it trying too hard to get in your face like Mean Girls, nor is it trying hard to attract families and kids as is the case with SpongeBob. All three of those 2018 competitors were produced by marketing executives. The Band’s Visit is a real story that got made into a show against the odds stacked against it in today’s Broadway environment of manufactured musicals.
Let your curiosity take you to The Fisher this week. But dial down expectations for what you think it is. It isn’t what you think.