By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
When I say “musical” what do you think of? People singing when they should be talking? A relentlessly perky chorus in matching outfits flashing jazz hands? Some brassy broad in a bedazzled dress gliding down a staircase?
I’ll tell you what you don’t expect – stillness and quiet. In a musical? That’s against the laws of nature or something, right?
But that’s what’s in store at The Band’s Visit, in town now thanks to the Broadway in Pittsburgh series.
The Band’s Visit continues through March 15. Benedum Center, Downtown. 412-456-6666. www.trustarts.org
It started life as a highly regarded film from 2007 (screenplay by Eran Kolirin) and was then rethought as a musical for the stage in 2017 … winning 10 of the 11 Tony Awards for which it was nominated. The score is by David Yazbek, the book by Itamar Moses and the director is David Cromer.
And it’s one of the most haunting, remarkable musicals I’ve ever seen.
Instead of the standard razzle-dazzle you usually get with a musical (which, and don’t get me wrong, I love) The Band’s Visit is an almost achingly small show, as exquisitely crafted as the finest piece of filigree – it confounds you with a delicacy that proves to be, at the same time, overwhelming.
A group of Egyptian musicians (the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra) arrives at a bus station in Tel Aviv – they’ve been asked to play at an Arab Cultural center in a nearby city. Due to some miscommunication, however, the band is sent to the wrong place, a dusty nothing of a nobody town somewhere in the desert populated by people who have nothing and don’t see any future in which they will.
There’s no more buses until morning so the group has to depend on the kindness of these strangers to put them up. And for one night the locals mix with the band’s members in unexpected ways. The most “musical theater” of these is the relationship blooming between the emotionally straight-jacketed band leader Tewfiq and Dina the hard-bitten owner of a café.
But wait!, it never resolves itself into standard musical theater romantic nonsense. Nothing happens. Except two very bruised and lost souls find brief moments of quiet together that soothes, for only a second, the sad emptiness always trying to swallow them. Sasson Gabay plays Tewfiq (which, as it turns out, is the same role he played in the 2007 movie!) and Janet Dacal is Dina. They give a huge beauty to people whose emotional need is so great it can’t ever be spoken. Their occasional flashes of connection are more powerful than any belting soprano hovering overhead on a broom. (Which, don’t get me wrong, I also love.)
The Band’s Visit is as gorgeous as it is because director Cramer and writers Yazbek and Moses have faith enough in the crystalline simplicity of its story to not get in the way. The theme of the work is the many ways people yearn to connect, and it’s usually accidental and almost always unspoken.
Stephen Sondheim once wrote about seeing an exhibition of painted Japanese screens and the bolt of wonder he experienced. It was a three-panel work and the first screen was decorated with a tree and an arching branch. That branch continued and concluded on the second screen. The third was completely blank. Sondheim says that last screen – the empty one – is the most profound of the three. I thought a lot about those screens at The Band’s Visit. So often characters merely sit for long moments not speaking out loud but that silence rings the hall like a thunderstorm.
There’s a moment of sheer musical genius when Haled, the “playboy” of the band, is at a roller rink/dance club (of all things.) He’s there with a young man, Papi, so in love with a young woman, he can’t be near her without screwing it up. Papi sings of his desperation in a comedy song called “Papi Hears the Ocean” and then Haled responds with a head-spinning marvel of a piece, “Haled’s Song About Love”, finally uniting Papi and his girlfriend. It is sweepingly romantic but, in its austerity, rejecting of cliché or trite aphorism. Joe Joseph, as Haled, quite simply is mesmeric with the number.
But then the entire cast is, in fact, outstanding and they are joined (some onstage, some off) by an orchestra giving Yazbek’s miraculous score a sound of shimmering voluptuousness.
There can’t be too much praise for director Cramer and the life he breathes into this show. His uses just about every bit of theatrical intelligence out there, and still everything onstage seems to be occurring by happenstance, a near-impossible feat. His staging is given a jewel-like setting by designer Scott Pask and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting becomes another character. With the addition of Sarah Laux’s precise and defining costumes, the look of A Band’s Visit achieves the same brilliance of the work by Yazbek, Moses, and Cramer.
An extraordinary evening of theater.