Sometimes I watch a movie or show because it is critically acclaimed and only because it is critically acclaimed. If it got a lot of awards, it has to be good. Right? I’ve had let-downs in the past, and the saga continues. The smash-hit Broadway musical The Band’s Visit is the winner of 10 Tonys (including Best Musical), making it one of the winningest musicals in Tony history. The Kimmel Center campus presented this sensation to a packed opening-night crowd at the Academy of Music to audibly mixed reviews.
Starting off strong with well-paced humor in every line and mystery around the corner, David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book) tell a tale about an Egyptian band, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, traveling to Israel for a performance. While they are waiting in Tel Aviv's central bus station, a mix-up puts them on an accidental detour to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. With no options but to stay in the town of Bet Hatikva until morning, the band is taken in by some generous locals. As they share one night together, they discover how universal human connection can surpass cultural differences and national borders.
Scott Pask delivers an impressive, ever-changing set that seems simultaneously ordinary and otherworldly. The environments of a small café, home, and roller-skating rink ground the play, inviting the audience into the inner workings of this small Israeli town.
The plot centers on Dina (Janet Dacal), a charismatic café owner offering free lodging to the band, and Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), a reserved bandleader nursing a broken heart. Dacal and Gabay play well opposite each other, gradually retracing the painful choices that led them to the present. The musical also follows the other band members, some of whom are lucky enough to be given tours of the town by the different locals they're staying with. The various storylines fail to consistently flesh out the characters enough to engage the audience fully.
Although Yazbek delivers a sensational score performed by an electrifying band and talented vocals, the majority of the songs lack substance. The dull lyrics of most of the musical numbers are reminiscent of a cheesy soap opera, providing neither relevant support to the plot nor a pleasant escape from the storyline.
There are a few saving graces, including the titular band itself, made up of Tony Bird, George Crotty, Evan Francis, Roger Kashou, and Ronnie Malley. The highlights of the night were the four instrumental numbers, transporting the audience across the globe in an instant with captivating traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation and arrangement.
The Band’s Visit also celebrates the theme of shared humanity, as individuals from different cultural backgrounds are united in friendship, romance, and struggle. As a multicultural person who has been lucky enough to travel extensively, I always enjoy stories about miscommunication and the human connection that can be formed across language barriers.
The musical began to drag about an hour into the 100-minute run time, to the point where I was hoping for either an intermission or an ending. Audience members around me walked out of the musical after the midway point, with one woman rudely brushing past me muttering, “I’m sorry, I just can’t.” The musical wasn’t that bad, but it also wasn’t that good. Although it was refreshing and exciting to see Middle Eastern actors and audiences feel represented, the plot itself straddled the line of mediocre.
With majestic music perfuming the air, this visiting band brings Bet Hatikva to life in unexpected ways that will leave you wanting more music and fewer words.
What, When, Where
The Band’s Visit. By David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, directed by David Cromer. Through January 19, 2020, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected]. There is an ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance of The Band’s Visit on Friday, January 17, 2020 at 8pm.