The Band’s Visit at The Kennedy Center

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Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came from Broadway to The Kennedy Center— but you will hear about this as it is pretty important. The Tony Award-winning musical The Band’s Visit comes to the Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts this summer, with Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Itamar Moses, the poignant and striking tale of two cultures meeting by mistake is brilliant and relevant in today’s ever-changing, hostile world. Directed by David Cromer with Choreography by Patrick McCollum, this enchanting modern-day fairytale of realism is filled with heart and honest moments of real life, which are truly endearing.

The Band's Visit national tour. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Matthew Murphy The Band’s Visit national tour. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Mesmerizing charm is the phrase best describing the theatrical experience that is The Band’s Visit. Everything from Scott Pask’s scenic design to Sarah Laux’ costumes, to the undeniably hypnotic and entrancing music by David Yazbek. The sand-swept scenery of Pask’s Bet Hatikva, the desolate town in the middle of nowhere, Israel, is stark yet engaging. The desert structure juxtaposed against the delicate powder blue Egyptian band uniforms which Laux has fabricated for The Band is striking. Tying the show’s strangely endearing aesthetic together (scenery, costumes, and lighting by Tyler Micoleau) is Yazbek’s undulating score. An influential hybrid of multiple styles, including Egyptian Folk and Klezmer, Yazbek paints a vivid soundscape with the show’s music, which serves as connective tissue between plot points and cultures as well as the most memorable element of the production.

Watching The Band (Tony Bird, George Crotty, Evan Francis, Roger Kashou, Ronnie Malley) is sheer theatrical ecstasy as they play their way through Yazbek’s score. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, always enthusiastically, The Band sets the mood, determines the moment’s emotional gravity and current, and infuses a universal life force into the production through their live on-stage playing. Often times members of The Band are seen sitting in the shadows, or even playing their instruments in shadow, whilst scenes occur around them; this creates a serenely surreal element of magical realism in the performance that draws the audience more readily into the evocative experience.

The Band's Visit national tour. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Matthew Murphy The Band’s Visit national tour. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Simply called “Telephone Guy”, Mike Cefalo adds a humorous element to his seemingly unimportant existence of standing stone still and staring at the pay phone on the streets of Bet Hatikva. But with a surprising voice that melts through his featured solo, “Answer Me” the way first light of dawn melts through the last hints of night, Cefalo wins over hearts and ears with his cameo feature in this number. The harmonies are beautifully haunting in this and all the ensemble numbers. The same is true of “Itzik’s Lullaby”, a song featuring Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Camal (Ronnie Malley.)  The scenes shared among these performers capture the essence of real life, the struggles of a cultural divide, and the way that music can unite perfect strangers under questionable circumstances. “The Beat of Your Heart” is another such number, featuring the aforementioned Koch, and Malley as well as James Rana as Simon and David Studwell as Avrum, who leads the number with rousing good spirits.

Bursting with humor and heart, the show is a meticulous balance of all of life’s emotions. Papi (Adam Gabay) explains that to us best in his hilarious solo number, “Papi Hears the Ocean.” With ridiculously adorable pattering lyrics, Gabay’s character expresses the experience of clamming up when it comes to being attracted to another human being. Haled (Joe Joseph), whose character is constantly slinging corny but harmless Chet Baker references as pick-up lines, puts forth a true crooner’s sound, when healing the embarrassed wounds of Papi’s bad experience with girls. Joseph, whose solo feature gives honesty and depth to his otherwise comically simplistic character, drifts gently through “Haled’s Song About Love.” In its own right, that number reads like a lullaby, assuaging not a physical infant, but the infantile fears of interacting with attractive individuals.

Chilina Kennedy (left) as Dina and Sasson Gabay (right) as Tewfiq in The Band's Visit. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Matthew Murphy Chilina Kennedy (left) as Dina and Sasson Gabay (right) as Tewfiq in The Band’s Visit. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Honey in the ear, spice in the mouth, the perfectly fitted lyrics when it comes to Chilina Kennedy’s portrayal of Dina. There is a tempestuous fire that burns beneath her casually tart and sassy exterior, much of which burns through and radiates at the forefront of her existence during numbers like “It Is What It Is” and “Something Different.” Though her story is as warped and frustrating as her circumstance in life, Kennedy brings a soul-searing honesty to the character and generates a great deal of passionate empathy in the audience’s response to her Dina. Her interactions with Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) drive the story forward with the same intensity and interest as the music. Gabay, whose character sings nearly not at all, is grounded in his role, earnest and open. There are little explosive moments of Tewfiq that Gabay carefully primes before unleashing for the audience’s greedy consumption, making the character that much more enigmatic and intriguing. Together, the pair carry the story’s core progressive plot, honing in on the honesty and sincerity of the situation above all else.

Remarkable in every facet of the production, from narrative to music, from performance to aesthetic, The Band’s Visit is an astonishing theatrical feat, well deserving of it’s “Big Six” Tony awards, including Best Musical. Don’t miss your chance to experience the universal unifying language of music; The Band’s Visit brings cultural differences to a stand-still and showcases love and life at its bare essence, with music.   

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission

The Band’s Visitplays through August 4, 2019 in the Eisenhower Theatre at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

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