"The Band's Visit"

Chilina Kennedy and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit.”

“The Band’s Visit,” which is on tour and at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square from Nov. 5 to 24, was adapted from a 2007 Israeli film of the same name and premiered in an award-winning 2016 off-Broadway production before its transfer to New York City’s W. 47th St. the following year.

The Broadway production – which “whispers while so many other productions shout” according to the Cleveland Jewish News review – won 10 Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, and earned the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

It tells the story of Egypt’s eight-piece Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who, on their way to play a goodwill concert at the new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva, Israel, mistakenly get on the bus for Bet Hatikva. They end up stranded for the night in this isolated, uneventful and unwelcoming Negev desert town. The band comes upon a sunbaked cafe, where its members are hesitantly invited into the homes of the cafe’s three occupants. Under the spell of the desert sky, and with the show’s seductive score filling the air, there is the feeling that something very important and wonderfully life-changing is happening to these people despite the political upheaval that has come to define them.

Playing the formal, straight-laced band leader Col. Tewfiq Zakaria on tour, as he did in the film and for a 10-month stint in the Broadway production, is Sasson Gabay.

Gabay was born in Baghdad to a Jewish family, who immigrated to Israel when he was three and resided in Haifa. After his military service, he studied theater and psychology at Tel Aviv University and has since become one of the most prominent actors in Israeli theater, television and cinema.

The CJN caught up with Gabay in Toronto, Canada, where the cast of “The Band’s Visit” – which includes his 21-year-old son, Adam – is performing before moving on to Norfolk, Va., and then to Cleveland.

“When the film opened at the Cannes Film Festival, we all knew we had something really special in our hands with this small and delicate story, even though it was low budget and shot in just 24 days,” he recalled. “With everyone’s lives being so hectic and demanding, this film allowed audiences to sit, open their hearts and breathe.

“But when the producer was first thinking about turning it into an off-Broadway musical, and I was approached to play this role, I thought it was a crazy idea. How can this story with these characters in this place possibly be made for the stage, much less be a musical?”

Turning the story into a musical fell to composer David Yazbek, who has said that each of the songs serves as the equivalent of a film close-up. It focuses on revealing a characters’ nature and emotions – through words and music – rather than moving along a storyline, which is the goal of most songs in most musicals. “They do add a most remarkable dimension to this story,” Gabay said. “And the melodies speak to everyone in the audience.”

The heart-wrenching “Something Different” is Gabay’s close up. It is when Dina, the young Israeli cafe owner, asks Tewfiq how it feels to conduct music, and the two of them allow themselves to be open and vulnerable for the first time. While sitting on a park bench, they both close their eyes, sway to the same rhythms, and inhabit the same imagined experience as she sings. “The audience has seen this rather formal and mysterious man but, through this song at this moment, we see his heart,” Gabay said.

The show ends at the new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva, where Tewfiq turns and faces his musicians, dramatically raises his baton just above his head to start the concert, suspends it there for an instant, and then the stage immediately goes to black.

Gabay suggests that this is the end of the play but a new beginning for its characters, who are now forever changed by their journey. “And the baton I use on stage is the very same one from the film. For me, too, one journey ends and another begins,” he said.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ best critic.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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