Kicking off the new year at the Golden Gate Theatre is the delayed arrival of The Band's Visit, the touring production of the 2018 Tony Award winner for Best Musical as well as three top acting prizes and a slew of others.
While the Tony Awards occasionally surprise us with unconventional winners, The Band's Visit stands out in a number of ways, having taken home 10 of the 11 trophies it was nominated for in 2018 despite being a very quirky, understated, decidedly modern musical without so much as a hummable melody. I would chalk it up to the fact that it was perhaps the most artful and original choice in a Broadway season that was rife with pop-culture retreads aimed at kids — the other nominees for Best Musical that year were Mean Girls, Frozen, and the albeit visually stunning and clever SpongeBob SquarePants musical.
Because while The Band's Visit is delightful in a number of ways, this is certainly a show that lucked into a path to Broadway from an off-Broadway house thanks to critical acclaim and an excellent book by Itamar Moses based on the 2007 film of the same name. The show unfolds with the same ponderous quietude of an independent film, populated with odd characters some of whom we encounter for just one scene, or a few short vignettes that add color to the story. And the show's songs are, mostly, personal essays or pleas, descriptions of gauzy memories, all of them idiosyncratic and some written in the 24-tone mode of Arab music that doesn't always play with ease in Western ears.
In short: hardly a shoe-in as Broadway hits go.
The Band's Visit is also, maybe most importantly, a terrific showcase for actors, and the touring production lets Janet Dacal shine in the lead role of Dina — the proprietress of a small cafe in the small desert town of Beit Hatikva, where a ceremonial orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt arrives by mistake and ends up stuck for the night.
The central misunderstanding that leads to the band's arrival serves as a perfect metaphor for the often awkward collisions of culture and language. The band asks an Israeli ticket-seller for bus tickets to the historical city of Petah Tikva, where they are scheduled to perform the next day at the opening of an Arab cultural center. But they end up — because there is no "p" sound in Arabic and it's often replaced with "b" — in the tiny village of Beit Hatikva, which sounds exactly the same to their ears.
Dina and several of the townspeople put the band up for the night after they learn there are no busses leaving until morning — and there are no hotels here. And what transpires are some subtle and poignant moments of friendship and warmth among strangers.
Sasson Gabay, an Israeli actor who appeared in the 2007 film, reprises his role in this production as the conductor of the orchestra, the reserved Tewfiq — who spends a tame but possibly romantic evening in the company of Dina. Joe Joseph does a marvelous job in the supporting role of Haled, the incorrigible flirt and fan of Chet Baker who's responsible for the ticket-mixup — and his Chet Baker-impersonating rendition of "Haled's Song About Love" is a highlight.
The Band's Visit remains hard to neatly summarize or categorize. It's quiet, it's melancholy, its moments of redemption are smaller and subtler than your typical Broadway fare. It shares some of its DNA with Come From Away, another modern show about strangers arriving in a small town in which many of the songs are like monologues for an ensemble of diverse characters. But it is wholly a piece of its own, specific in each of its quiet plot lines and refreshing in its unconventionality.
And though it doesn't have a conventional Big Final Number or major resolution, the show still manages to have some incredibly moving musical moments in its final minutes — maybe most notably with a rollicking post-curtain-call number by the full band, something that doesn't happen in the show until then. For a not-conventionally-crowd-pleasing show, it's a crowd-pleasing, standing-O moment for sure.
'The Band's Visit' plays at the Golden Gate Theatre through February 6. Find tickets here.