‘The Band’s Visit’ makes a stirring stop at the Kennedy Center

The Tony-winning musical tells a story of all that makes us human — love, loss, loneliness, and connection.

The Band’s Visit begins with a disclaimer: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It was not important.” But of course, it is very important. The story that’s about to unfold is deceptively small in its radius, and miles wide in its exquisite embrace of all that makes us human — love, loss, loneliness, and connection.

The company of ‘The Band’s Visit’ North American Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra, spiffed up in formal, sky-blue uniforms, arrives in Tel Aviv and waits for a prearranged transport to the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva where they are scheduled to perform. When no van arrives, the band’s ramrod-straight director, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, instructs band member Haled to arrange for bus tickets. With an imperfect grasp of English, Haled instead ends up with tickets to Bet Hatikvah, a desert backwater settlement with no Israeli cultural center, much less an Arab equivalent.

The listless citizens and their unexpected, instrument-toting Arab guests encounter each other in stunned silence at the town’s outdoor café. There’s no return bus until tomorrow, so the settlers extend a tentative hand to the travelers, and the humbled Egyptians have no choice other than to accept the Israelis’ measured hospitality.

Don’t expect any desert miracles, but over the next 100 minutes the Israelis and Egyptians, in various tentative ways, lower their barriers and extend a shy generosity to one another during the single night that the band stays in town.

Much of this sharing is accomplished through a beautiful score that transformed what originated as a small, spare 2007 film into a sensational Broadway hit with music and lyrics by David Yazbek. The Band’s Visit first played Off-Broadway in 2016. Moving to Broadway in 2017, it nearly swept the Tonys, winning 10 out of the 11 awards for which it was nominated. On an extended tour, The Band’s Visit, directed by David Kromer, plays at the Kennedy Center through July 17.

Two clever songs establish the ennui that adheres Bet Hatikvah’s languid residents to their stale surroundings. “Waiting” speaks to their unchanging circumstances: “Sometimes it feels like we’re moving in a circle, around and around with the same scenery going by.” “Welcome to Nowhere” sums up their village as beige, blank, boring, and bland.

Janet Dacal as Dina and Sasson Gabay.as Tewfiq in ‘The Band’s Visit’ North American Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

The café owner Dina, played by the stunning Janet Dacal, feeds the band and executes a slow turn around the starched Tewfiq, probing his musical and personal life hoping to break down his rigidity and create some kind of connection. She is not a total stranger to Egyptian culture. In the gorgeous ballad “Omar Sharif,” Dina recalls sitting with her mother in their living room and watching the movies of Omar Sharif and listening to the songs of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum that floated into their home “on a jasmine wind.” Weekly TV and radio programs connected them to a wider world and the possibility of bigger lives.

“The Beat of Your Heart” also centers on the passion and power of music to transcend one’s circumstances. Over a family dinner with the Arab guest, Kamal, Avrum recalls the magic of first glimpsing his late wife at a dance: “Love started on the downbeat, ” he sings. “This music is a time machine, a gift from God” that enables him to relive a happier past.

“Answer Me” is sung by Telephone Guy (Joshua Grosso), a sentinel who stands guard in front of the town’s only pay phone, waiting for his girlfriend to call. But soon this obsessive oddball is joined by other characters. His sad solo ballad expands into a lament of exquisite harmonies. Who among us has not hoped and waited?

The accomplished Israeli actor Sasson Gabay originated the character of Tewfiq in the 2007 film and returned to the role in this traveling production. His formality and gravitas are progressively tinged with small gestures of humanity as Dina tours him through the town’s attractions — a bench that she proclaims is a park, and a garishly lit cafeteria. She asks him what it is like to conduct an orchestra. Finally, Tewfiq lights up, and the two trace a beautiful moment of mime, playing silent music in the air.

Scenic designer Scott Pask’s revolving stage echoes the unending circularity of life in Bet Hatikvah. The turning platform also allows us to peer into all modest locales where the settlers and the Egyptians form tentative, ephemeral bonds. Tyler Micoleau’s magnificent lighting emphasizes the circularity as well. Watch as broad, flat daylight morphs into a spectacular sunset, darkness, and back to daylight.

The company of ‘The Band’s Visit’ North American Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.

Does the band’s unanticipated visit mark a change in anyone’s life, or is it simply a blip in an otherwise unchanging cycle of life? What may seem most astonishing for playgoers is the near-complete absence of any references to religion or politics in a region where sectarian strife has defined life for millennia. The desert settlement may seem boring for its inhabitants, but for us it becomes an oasis.

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

The Band’s Visit plays through July 17, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$155) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The program for The Band’s Visit is online here

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.


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