THE GROUP’S VISIT to the Kennedy Center
THE BAND’S VISIT is a sweet and surprising musical comedy of missed and made connections, forging understanding and finding unexpected adventure in a place that seems to remain the same. The production, which won 10 Tony Awards in 2018 for its Broadway run, is on tour at the Kennedy Center through July 17.
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is en route from Egypt to the Israeli city of Petah Tikva to perform at the Arab Cultural Center. When the expected guide does not meet them at the Tel Aviv train station, the leader of the group decides that they will go there on their own by bus. Yet, given their accents and unfamiliarity with the area, they instead end up in Bet Hatikva, a quiet desert village where locals bemoan the monotony and lack of opportunities.
As the band members look around the quiet, deserted town for the site of the show to no avail, the cafe dwellers help piece together the confusion. But, with no other bus service for the day, the Arab group had to be accommodated among several Israeli townspeople. There is nervousness among the hosts and guests, but the cafe’s dynamic owner, Dina, won’t accept a refusal. In one short evening, strangers share observations and truths that know no borders. The inhabitants of Bet Hatikva see their house with new eyes. The band enjoys the way music opens doors and conversations.
Janet Dacal as Dina powers the show with her gorgeous voice and energetic performances. But Dacal also has touching and quieter moments like her memories of watching Omar Sharif movies on TV as a girl. Her scenes with bandleader Twefiq, played by Sasson Gabay, are filled with light and humor as Dina encourages the shy and uptight bandleader to relax and explore the small village with her. Gabay originated the role of Tewfiq in the Israeli film the musical was based on. Gabay balances both gravity and reserve in his portrayal of Tewfiq. Dina also welcomes Haled (Ali Louis Bourzgui), the sweet trumpeter who seeks to win accolades with his renditions of Chet Baker. Bourzgui brings a seriousness and ease to the role, keeping it soft rather than slick.
The locals bring Haled to a fledgling wheelie disco. Poor Grandpa (Coby Getzug) is clumsy and nearly paralyzed with fear as he tries to impress his date, Julia. Getzug’s Song”Grandpa hears the ocean”, which describes the terrible ringing in his ears that overwhelms him when he is near a woman who captures his interest, is a highlight of the show. Haled shares some tips that help Grandpa gain confidence and pique Julia’s interest. Layan Elwazani as Julia, Ariel Reich as Anna, and Billy Cohen as Zelger bring youth and verve to this particular scene, while roller-skating on the turntable on set.
Meanwhile, Itzik (played by the endearing and charismatic Clay Singer) is home to band members Simon (James Rana) and Camal (Yoni Avi Battat). Itzik’s small apartment feels even more cramped with the hostility of his wife, Iris (Kendal Hartse), the couple’s new baby, and the big personality of Iris’ father, Avrum (David Studwell) who was once a musician. Iris works as a caregiver…and comes home to care for others. Itzik could not find a job. In the midst of the tension, the visit is a convivial moment, of sharing music and stories. Simon, eager to have the chance to conduct the orchestra, shares his unfinished clarinet concerto. The singer brings a lot of heart to Itzik’s song to his grandson (“Itzik’s Lullaby”), a nice bookend to Rana building Simon’s concerto to soothe the child.
There is a pay phone in town. Camal is eager to use it to call the embassy for help. Yet Telephone Guy (Joshua Grosso in a small, stable and memorable role) hogs the phone while waiting for his girlfriend to call.
Scott Pask’s set design features cement buildings of “Midcentury Meh” – gray and gloomy broken by the bustling disco or family dinners. A turntable helps move each scene and the movement of the actors quickly and seamlessly. Sarah Laux’s costume design of military band uniforms and turn-of-the-century fashion sets us in the sleepy desert town in 1996. Tony Award-winning Tyler Micoleau designed the lights that run from chandeliers in apartments to the pulsating disco lights at the ice rink, or the washing of the desert sun. The creative team also includes Patrick McCollum (choreography), Sarah Laux (costume design), Tony Award winner Kai Harada (sound design) and Tony Award winner.
It’s a music show. David Yazbek got a Tony for music and lyrics, Itamar Moses got one for the book and Jamshied SharifI for the orchestrations. Bourzgui as trumpeter Haled and Rana as clarinetist Simon both have moments where they express themselves beautifully through their instruments. Live music on stage adds considerably to the production. Yoni Avi Battat is on violin, Wick Simmons on cello, Roger Kashou plays darbuka and riq on Middle Eastern percussion, Brian Krock plays clarinet, saxophone and flute, and Kane Mathis plays guitar and oud (Arabic lute). Behind the scenes, bandleader and keyboardist Adrian Ries and his associate Jeff Cox, Mark Ziegler on electric and acoustic bass, Shai Wetzer on drums and Arabic percussion.
In an increasingly polarized world, The group visit is a gentle and effective reminder of finding commonality and kindness. There are rewards to crossing dividing lines. And, after our Covid-related isolation and overlong shelter in our homes, audiences are ready for the musical’s exploration of the richness and beauty of a small place where residents think nothing serious never happens.
The group visit only briefly visits the Kennedy Center; it runs until July 17. Grab your tickets now. There is one week left to enjoy this comforting and tender production.
Autonomy: 100 minutes; the production takes place without intermission.
GROUP VISIT is presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and runs the Eisenhower Theater through July 17. manufacturing information on the Kennedy Center website. Recommended from 10 years old.
Photos: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.