Saturday, March 5, 2022

And The Band Played On: “The Bands Visit”

The Band

Several years ago, I managed to see an off- beat 2007 Israeli movie called “The Band’s Visit. Please don’t ask the circumstances. I remember it was in a movie theatre, way before Netflix or Amazon Prime. No. An actual movie theatre, like the ones I used to visit pre Covid. 

I loved the movie in all its simplicity and authenticity and humor, scenery and acting not to mention the music, which by the way was incidental. It was more about a happening.

The musical of the same name currently at the Civic Theatre/ Broadway- San Diego through March 6th is about that same Egyptian Band; The Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band that was invited to perform in Israel at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva. 

Unfortunately, when the Band finds themselves in the bus station and no one waiting for them they learn that they were nowhere near Peth Atikva, but instead were in Bet Hatikva. 

And so, from a simply charming off beat Israeli movie to an award winning Broadway musical, with David Yazbek’s score and a script by Itamar Moses, “The Band’s Visit” directed by David Cromer is a Broadway rarity winning 10 Tony Awards in 2018 a whole new landscape is created.

It’s amazing how one letter and a different pronunciation of an area and turning a charming movie into and award winning musical, can apparently make all the difference. 

In the song “Welcome to Nowhere,” Dina (Janet Dacal), a cafe proprietor explains in her broken English that everybody loves Petah Tikva — “lots of fun, lots of art, lots of culture.” Bet Hativka, on the other hand, is “boring,” “barren” and “bland.” But to their good will, they allow the band to stay for the night and they agree to house and feed them. 

Here we find ourselves with the band in nowhere Bet Hatikva (until the next bus arrives the next day) where most of the of the action, or lack there -of happens. But to their overall good will and with Diana in the lead, the people of Bet Hatikva allow the band to stay for the night and they agree to house and feed them. 

 In its simplicity, the universal language of music manages to cut through any obstacles with the laid back characters in the town standing in contrast to the formal looking band members dressed in full formal (baby blue) uniforms by costume designer Sarah Laux, clinging to their instruments as if someone might come along and hijack them. 

When some of the band interact with the citizens of Bet Hativka the universality of people to people, any prejudices and politics aside, not to mention language barriers, something magic clicks in and stories of love and loss takes shape. 

Janet Dacal and Sasson Gaby

One of the more developed character studies is between band leader Sasson Gaby who also played Tewfiq in the in the film version as the band’s leader. Gaby, a soft mannered and still sharing memories of this twenty year ago deceased wife and Janet Dacal is Dina (in what seems like the only eating place outside the home), owner of the Bet Hatikva café still longing for missed opportunities are both lonely and looking for a connection only to have it fall short of expectations. (“Omar Sharif”)

Onstage band members play music between scenes in an easy segue to the interactions of various Bet Hatikvans and their guests. Clarinetist Simon (James Rana), who never got past the opening bars of an unfinished concerto, and violinist Camal (Yoni Avi Battat) are put up in the home of unemployed looser Itzik (Clay Singer) and his unhappy wife Iris (Kendall Hartse). 

The Company

Included is a family fallout of sorts over dinner with Iris’ widowed father Avrum (David Studwell). The couple gets into a shouting match with Iris storming out in what seems a regular occurrence. By contrast, Avrum’s song, “The Beat of Your Heart,” is among the more rousing numbers, recalling the first rush of love as if it were yesterday. In contrast, Simon’s unfinished piece is able to calm the crying baby down since no one else in the household can.

There are several scenario’s playing out that make up the bulk of everyday life in the little desert hamlet called Bet Hatikva. Nothing that couldn’t be seen in any small town and that’s what’s so different about this sleeper of a musical. There are no real BIG show stoppers in Yazbek’s score. But with the band on stage that includes Yoni Avi Battat, Roger Kashou, Brian Krock, Kane Mathis and Wick Simmons, the instruments and music sounds authentically Middle Eastern.

Joe Joseph, Sasson Gabay and Janet Dacal

All said and done, yours truly enjoyed the film version over the live performance at the too large Civic Theatre, simply because of the intimacy of the show and the often garbled sound system at the Civic, even with assisted hearing, was annoying. The large (for that small show) ensemble is overall up to the task but some of the dialogue gets lost in translation.

 “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You of probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important,”

The show runs about 95 minutes with no intermission. 

Without benefit of the movie, I would recommend seeing this sleeper just for the simple humanity and humility of it, and of course the score.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday. 8 p.m. Friday. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego

Photo: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

Tickets: $35.50 and up; garage parking is $15


COVID Protocol: Masks and proof of vaccination required. There’s also a security/metal detector gate that slows down the entry-time so plan accordingly. 

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