The great thing about musicals, and theater in general, is that there is no one way to win over audiences. Of the 21st century Best Musical winners at the Tony Awards, only a handful could be judged as aiming for general audiences. Most could be plausibly considered tough sells, including ones centered on foul-mouthed puppets, Irish buskers, and rapping founding fathers.
The Band’s Visit, which won the Best Musical Tony in 2018, falls squarely into that latter category, as it centers on a group of Egyptian musicians who get lost on their way to a gig in Israel. But the way in which the story, featuring a book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, personalizes its characters through intimate conversations and songs makes it a universal experience.
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), is supposed to take a bus to the city of Petah Tikvah, but a hilarious miscommunication instead takes them to the desert town of Bet Hatikva. Once there, they are greeted by café owner Dina (Janet Dacal), who takes pity on them and arranges for the musicians to stay the night at various locations.
What transpires over that night is, as is stated a couple of times, “not that important,” but it also shows how strong bonds can be made in a short period of time when people open their hearts. Tewfiq and Dina make a connection over dinner, trumpeter Haled (Joe Joseph) gloms on to a double date at a roller rink, and clarinetist Simon (James Rana) charms a strained family through a concerto he’s trying to compose.
It’s clear right away that Moses and Yazbek are using humor in an attempt to bridge any cultural divides, and the musical winds up being as funny as it is heartfelt. Haled provides much of the comedy with his bumbling overconfidence, but there is also a slew of small moments with other characters, like a young man obsessed with receiving a call at a phone booth, that elicit laughs.
Unlike some other musicals, none of the songs are individually memorable, but they collectively add up to something special. Songs like “It Is What It Is,” “Omar Sharif,” “Papi Hears the Ocean,” “Something Different,” and “Answer Me” give insights into various characters that provides depth for the story as a whole.
Special note should be made of the scenic design by Scott Pask, which utilizes a turntable in the floor, fold-out sets, and other tricks to keep the action fluid. The drab and dusty Bet Hatikva is transformed through touches small and large that each contribute to the production’s success.
Gabay, who played the same character in the 2007 film on which the musical is based, returns to the lead on the national tour after being replaced by Tony Shalhoub on Broadway. He has a quiet presence that holds the production together, along with great chemistry with Dacal, whose intensity juxtaposes well with him. It also has to be special for Gabay to have his son, Adam, play Papi, one of the key characters in Bet Hatikva.
While The Band’s Visit is set in a country that 99 percent of people will never visit, it brings that world to life thanks to its humanity and the universality of music. It’s not a showstopper, but it’s just as effective as any other musical you’ll ever see.