Review: ‘The Band’s Visit’ at The Kennedy Center

“All alone in the quiet /And my ears are thirsty / For your voice, for your voice / Can you answer me.” Those lyrics from The Band’s Visit’s “Answer Me” burrowed into my heart as I took in The Band’s Visit at The Kennedy Center.

'The Band's Visit,' now playing at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
‘The Band’s Visit,’ now playing at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Directed by David Cromer, The Band’s Visit is a gorgeous, generous work of art. It is a musical that knows and dignifies the soul. It is a musical about a small sliver of humanity that has an enormous sweep to it. With fifteen splendidly performed musical numbers, The Band’s Visit is an inspired journey providing an attentive audience a look into the human condition with its longing for true connections.

How? Through the universal language of music–with memorable, hummable, musical compositions and singable, catchy lyrics both delicate and earthy by David Yazbek. The production’s connective tissue is the book is by Itamar Moses. It is based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin. The live music and the tight eight-member band is conducted by Rick Bertone.

The set up for The Band’s Visit is simple enough. It is several decades ago in the Middle East. The Alexandria, Egypt Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in the wrong town in Israel. They are not near the cosmopolitan city Tel Aviv, but somewhere in the desolate Negev Desert. Now what could go wrong with that? Well, plenty could. Then again, might decent people find ways so that wrong things don’t happen? The audience will find that out.

What struck me about The Band’s Visit beyond the terrific performances is this. The Band’s Visit is not just about a particular fictional village. It is not just about a particular time in the distant past when cell phones were not ubiquitous, the Internet was not as we now know it, and roller skating with a spinning disco ball was a major date night.

No. The Band’s Visit is about people of different cultures and languages connecting over messed-up relationships, disappointments, boredom, loneliness, and life’s losses by common ground and humanity through music. It is about taking chances with one’s eyes open.

Before writing about the standout performances let me first tip my hat and bow to Yazbek for the way some of his songs sound like “call-and-response.” “Papi Hears the Ocean” is sung by a shy young man (Adam Gabay) unable to show his interest in a quiet girl. The immediate next song, “Haled’s Song About Love” is sung by a confident man (Joe Joseph) has lyrics that suggest what the shy boy might do.

Another match set is “It is What It Is,” answered by “Something Different.” The first is sung by a lonely woman wanting love to return to her life. The second is a response in a duet with the same lonely woman and a possible love interest, a man she finds attractive.

And there are the brilliant insouciant lyrics that anyone who ever wanted to escape their “nothing” small hometown finds in “Welcome to Nowhere”; “stick a pin in a map of the desert / Build a road to the middle of the desert / Pour concrete on the spot in the desert.” This comes right after the opening number entitled “Waiting” about the residents of a small town who are bored out of their minds.

Chilina Kennedy as Dina and Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq in 'The Band's Visit.' Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Chilina Kennedy as Dina and Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq in ‘The Band’s Visit.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The play’s nineteen-member ensemble is marvelous. Standout performances are plentiful, starting with Chilina Kennedy (Broadway’s Beautiful). She plays Dina, a cynical, sarcastic Israeli restaurant owner. She is an individual with a big heart and a forlorn soul. Sasson Gabay is Tewfiq, the leader of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. He is hard-nosed when first encountered, then softens as he divulges more about his own life.

In their iridescent duet “Omar Sharif” possible bonds between Dina and Tewfiq form as they share common love for famous Egyptian performers; “Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif came floating on the jasmine wind.” Dina moves and sways as if in a trance that fills the stage while Tewfiq gazes at her with studied enchantment. In a later duet, the two are in synchronization as they mimic each other’s movements, he conducting an unseen orchestra, she trying to understand what he may be singing in Arabic.

David Studwell is a delightful Avrum, a widower who captivates singing about his late wife with the infectious “The Beat of Your Heart.” The song’s lyrics include “Love starts on a downbeat,” as the high-energy music had me ready to dance on the tables with the actors. Patrick McCollum is the choreographer.

A character named “Telephone Guy” portrayed by Mike Cefalo waits mutely by a phone booth for most of the show. But wait for him as he brings his high tenor to bear singing “Answer Me.” Then the stage fills with the full ensemble singing “Answer Me.” Wow!

The Band’s Visit set is by Scott Pask. It is a backdrop presenting the pale beige of concrete with the fine use of a turntable to move actors and set pieces alike. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is masterful, both bright LED white and also muted tones for featured “evening/night” scene. In several scenes, the band members are in grey silhouettes as they play their instruments. They too will have their well-deserved spotlight time before the audience. Let us praise the robin egg’s blue uniforms of the Egyptian band members designed by Sarah Laux; magnificent pastel color against the overall desert sand and concrete look.

'The Band's Visit,' now playing at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
‘The Band’s Visit,’ now playing at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Do know that the musical instruments go well beyond the usual Western instruments such as the clarinet (sounding both classic and Klezmer like) and violin (sounding both soulful and fun). They include distinctive Middle Eastern musical instruments with irresistible sounds such as the Oud (a pear-shaped string instrument) and the Darbuka drum. Adding to the overall soundscape is Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” performed by the character Haled on a soulful trumpet in the style of Chet Baker.

Winner of ten 2018 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, The Band’s Visit swept me away. It is a universal tale of seeking connections in an unlikely location; connections that cross cultural boundaries and enter the human heart. It is here for only a few short weeks. Take it in.

Running Time: About 95 minutes with no intermission.

The Band’s Visit plays through August 4, 2019, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.

Note: Musical Numbers based upon The Kennedy Center program:

  • “Overture” – The Band
  • “Waiting” – The Residents of Bet Hatikva
  • “Welcome to Nowhere” – Dina, Itzik, Papi
  • “It Is What It Is” – Dina
  • “Beat Of Your Heart” – Avrum, Itzik, Simon, Camal
  • “Soraya” – The Band
  • “Omar Sharif” – Dina
  • “Haj-Butrus” – The Band
  • “Papi Hears the Ocean” – Papi
  • “Haled’s Song About Love” – Haled, Papi
  • “Something Different” – Dina, Tewfiq
  • “Itzik’s Lullaby” – Itzik and Camal
  • “Something Different” (Reprise) – Dina
  • “Answer Me” – Telephone Guy and Ensemble
  • “The Concert” – The Band
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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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