*Contains spoilers for The Band’s Visit.
Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” But it did show human connection between strangers.
The Band’s Visit centers around an Egyptian Police Band winding up in the small, fictional Negev city of Bet Hatikva because of miscommunication due to language barriers. (So maybe it’s fitting I struggled to understand some of the lyrics.) The locals welcome the band for the night, and Israelis and Egyptians alike find connections through music.
The musical begins and ends with the declaration that the band’s visit was an unimportant event. And that’s how the show felt from the audience. I watched characters develop, but I didn’t feel there was a full story taking place on stage. You would never know you had missed anything had the events between the band arriving and leaving from Bet Hatikva been cut from the show. Yet, it’s what happens in between that matters.
The characters, though strangers, share the human experience of loss and longing for love. The Israelis provide hospitality for the band and get even more in return. Egyptian Haled helps Israeli Papi with his crush, Egyptian Simon helps an Israeli married couple reconnect, and Israeli Dina and Egyptian Tewfiq help each other find themselves — all through shared experience and music.
One of the striking moments is when Avrum, an Israeli, says, “Shalom aleichem,” and Simon, an Egyptian, responds, “Alaikum Salaam.” The phrases are simply kind gestures, but also show commonality between these two strangers who have been using English and music to get through their language barrier.
There is both Arabic and Klezmer music. What makes this show special is the band. With some musicians below the stage, most of the music is played on stage. Musicians played as both characters and the accompanying orchestra. Many recent Broadway shows have omitted encores, but The Band’s Visit’s band plays what feels like a jam session after the bows. The stage also doesn’t feel too isolated with band members strategically placed around the stage from scene to scene.
Along with ears trained to appreciate Klezmer, the show feels special to a Jewish audience member through Hebrew. Even with a minimal understanding of Hebrew, you can catch lines that others cannot. However, there are no Jewish themes which also means no Jewish/Israeli stereotypes (other than a girl eating Bamba). But the Bamba, the smell of smoke, and the proper signage with all three languages at what I can only assume is Ben Gurion Airport feels like Israel.
The character Dina (Chilina Kennedy) steals the show, until at the end Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo), named for spending the majority of the show standing to the side waiting for his girlfriend to call, breaks out with a solo and a beautiful voice. Haled (Joe Joseph) also has a moving voice and only one song. Telephone Guy and the ensemble singing “Answer Me” at the end brings out a heartwarming and hopeful feeling as Telephone Guy’s girlfriend finally calls and the married couple fall back in love.
The Band’s Visit isn’t the most memorable show, especially at only 90 minutes long, but the themes of brotherhood and hope stand out. The show leaves you with two questions: Do the band and the locals ever see each other again? And “Do you like Chet Baker?”