How often does a musical depend on silence? Not pauses to change a set or provide a breather to a star after a spectacular number, but true intervals of quiet where the characters and audience digest emotions in peace.
“The Band’s Visit” offers an unusual number of those moments. The setting, an Israeli desert town where an Egyptian police band gets stuck overnight, makes it almost a cliché to call “Visit” an oasis of calm amid the hurly-burly of touring musicals. But that’s what it is.
It won 10 Tony Awards last year for many reasons: The understated yearning of the lonely characters, the Middle Eastern-inflected score by David Yazbek and perceptive book by Itamar Moses, direction of consummate subtlety by David Cromer, an intimacy that has you leaning forward to catch the next soft-spoken phrase. (Luckily, the Broadway Lights tour has come to Knight Theater, not the Belk.)
Moses sticks closely to the plot of the 2007 Israeli film that inspired this show. Conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, sensitively reprising his movie role) and seven musicians come to Israel to play at an Arab cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. A bus station mix-up sends them instead to isolated Bet Hatikva, where residents greet them with bafflement and guarded kindness.
One of the show’s unusual assets is its lack of exposition and resolution. Dina (earthy Chilina Kennedy), the café owner whose sensuality has shriveled almost to nothing, wonders whether Tewfiq could be the romancer she watched in Egyptian movies as a girl. Womanizing trumpeter Haled (Joe Joseph) teaches stumbling townsman Papi (Adam Gabay, Sasson’s son) how to talk to an equally shy girl. Band members get involved with quarreling young parents and a young fellow waiting for a phone call from his distant, incommunicative girlfriend.
We know local friendships, fights and flareups of passion will go on as before, long after the band leaves. We learn only as much about the visitors and hosts as one might over a slow night in a small town. Yet though the vignettes don’t add up to a plot, the cumulative emotional effect moves us.
Music permeates the atmosphere, bubbling up from an unseen orchestra or bursting out of the players onstage. The police band really is a band with sizzling strings, sinuous reeds and rocking percussion, given an exotic flavor by the riq (tambourine), darbouka (goblet drum) and lute-like oud. Songs flow organically through this soundworld, as they do in “Once” — also a Tony-winner, also produced by Orin Wolf, also a low-key story with minimal plot.
Yazbek’s songs have been tailored to the characters. Dina dreamily recalls the perfumed thoughts those Egyptian movies instilled; Haled, a Chet Baker fan, gets a love ballad in Baker’s jazzy style; Papi’s frantic patter song reflects the jumble in his virginal brain. These elements all fit together, and the final ensemble “Answer Me” becomes a memorably unconventional power ballad.
At one point, Egyptians and Israelis bond over “Summertime,” a ballad written by a New York-born Jew for a black fisherman’s wife to sing along Charleston’s Catfish Row. If you needed proof that music remains the only universal language, there you have it.
“The Band’s Visit”
When: Through Aug. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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