A Visit to a Small Desert Town is a Respite for the Soul

By Sam Pynes

The Band’s Visit, The Lied Center, Saturday April 9, 3PM

There is a fun synchronicity with the touring shows stopping in Nebraska this season. Like Hadestown, which recently visited The Orpheum in Omaha,this is a contained and atmospheric experience which also utilizes a modular wheel. Also, like Come From Away, which will visit The Lied later next month, this is a story about a meeting of cultures that share a common humanity through the medium of music.

The show begins on a blank screen, projecting words in a fuzzy second-run theater-font: “Once, not so long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” But like so many such moments in our lives, these events are anything but unimportant to these characters. We don’t know when or how those days will come that change our lives: it may all start when we invert a letter and buy a ticket for the wrong bus.

This is a quiet and unassuming musical that shows a moment in time without huge revelations or character changes, but it sows the seeds and moments that could make all the difference to these characters’ futures, and in our imaginations perhaps they can and do change for the better. 

I am a big proponent of efficient length in theatre: shows should be as long or short as they need to be to tell their story. Within reason, of course; I’m looking at you Wagner. Bands Visit clocks in at 95 minutes without an intermission, and appears to be exactly the right length to present its brief moment in time. This musical is based on a 2007 film of the same name. Sasson Gabay reprises his role from the film, and lends a subtle gravity to the show.

Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) is the leader of an Egyptian police band traveling to Israel to perform at a cultural center in Petah Tikva, but ends up in the sleepy desert town of Bet Hatikva by mistake. The generous people of the town welcome the band to stay the night as they wait for the next day’s bus, and the ensuing evening reveals the characters’ burdens as they bond over music. The simple realism of the story hides its gentle thematic depth. The residents of Bet Hatikva sing that they are “just waiting for something to change,” but theirs is a stagnant, hopeless waiting. All the characters in this story are stuck on the cusp of possible change or growth. They are all waiting for something, and an encounter with strangers might be all they need to find the courage to take the next step, as they bond over music and shared cultural experiences, from the international culture of American songs, to the nearer imports of Egyptian movies, to the gentle strains of Simon’s unfinished concerto. This motif of waiting is most clearly exemplified by the “Telephone Guy,” who literally waits by a payphone for the whole evening for his girlfriend to call, and whose song was an unexpected favorite part of the show. I am not surprised to read that Joshua Grosso played Marius in the touring production of Les Misérables: his crystal clear voice rang out like a birdsong at dawn. His solo leads into the show’s only large vocal chorus. The moment feels all the bigger and well-earned because of the show’s otherwise restrained tone. It further amplified what a wonderful respite this small interlude in the desert is from some other modern unrelentingly “belty” musicals. 

It is interesting to note that they bridge their language divide with English (fortunately for us,) and make references to songs from The Great American Songbook. This is another incidental link to another act coming this season, longtime champion of The Songbook, Michael Feinstein. It is an inescapable fact that this strange collection of songs is not just part of America’s cultural heritage, but now the world’s. I bring this up because the songbook itself is a cultural merging of pop, jazz, and classical in America. Here, the language of these songs facilitates the meeting of different, but related cultures in a place very far away. Haled, a trumpet player who is obsessed with Chet Baker, sings a song which would be right at home in the canon.

The musicians of the story’s band also function as the show’s orchestra, providing the all-important score as they fill the twilight edges of scenes, always present, but never drawing focus. The band finally gets its time to shine as a full unit in the curtain call as they send out the audience on a rollicking gallop. Joe Joseph (Haled), and James Rana (Simon) play important roles in the story, in addition to the music that they play. The songs in the show are highly memorable, with simple, punchy lyrics: I suspect I will re-listen to the album often for the rest of the year.

The set design and lights are extremely effective. As with many modern productions, the primary mechanical feature is a moving wheel with a rim that moves independently of its center, allowing scenes to enter around the corner as the previous scene finishes. This production is an exemplary dance of set, light, and character, and scenes confidently begin as elements and characters float into place as if you are being whisked from scene to scene, unhurriedly, but without dead air. 

We don’t see what happens to these characters after this encounter, but what is clear from those who appear to take the next step from waiting is that we must forgive ourselves before we begin to forgive others.

If you get the chance, go take a break at a refreshing oasis, and enjoy this reviving little musical. It really is worldclass stuff.

If you go: The Band’s Visit plays at The Lied Center Saturday April 9 at 3PM and 8PM, and Sunday April 10 at 1:30PM and 7PM.

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless. Current Managing Editor of Appearing Locally.

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