“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” “Mean Girls.” “Anastasia.” “Disney's Frozen.”
These are among the touring productions that are part of this year’s KeyBank Broadway series at Cleveland's Playhouse Square. So is “The Band’s Visit,” which whispers while these others shout and delivers a bittersweet story instead of saccharine entertainment.
The musical, written by Itamar Moses, was adapted from a 2007 Israeli film of the same name that premiered off-Broadway in 2016 before transferring to Broadway the following year and earning 10 Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical.
It tells the story of Egypt’s eight-piece Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who, on their way to play a goodwill concert in Petah Tikva, Israel, mistakenly get on the bus for Bet Hatikva. Led by the quiet and intense Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (an abundantly charming Sasson Gabay, who played the role in the film and for a 10-month stint in the Broadway production), they end up stranded for the night in this isolated, uneventful and unwelcoming Negev desert town.
The band comes upon a sunbaked café, where its members are hesitantly invited into the homes of the café’s three occupants. The café owner Dina (the sensuous Chilina Kennedy) is a hardened and guarded woman cheated out of a more stimulating life by bad relationships and small-town inertia. Itzik (an enchanting Pomme Koch) is an unemployed man-child with a disenchanted wife (a wonderful Kendal Hartse) and brand new baby. Papi (an endearing Adam Gabay) is young and clueless about matters of the heart.
Under the spell of the desert sky, and with the show’s seductive Grammy Award-winning score filling the air, there is the feeling that something very important and wonderfully life-changing is happening to these people despite the historical and political upheaval that has come to define and divide them.
The musical moves forward with a succession of immaculately conceived, meticulously orchestrated and tenderly rendered moments where lonely characters – particularly Dina and Tewfiq – speak hesitant English that fails as much as it succeeds in matching the right word with the desired meaning. Others wait for a phone call (Mike Cefalo as Telephone Guy), long for elusive musical inspiration (James Rana as Simon), and hope for a positive response to a pathetic pick-up line (Joe Joseph as Haled).
Most of these moments are gently underscored with Middle Eastern-accented music provided by on-stage actor/musician band members (Roger Kashou on darbouka/riq, Evan Francis on clarinet/ saxophone/flute, Ronnie Malley on oud/guitar, George Crotty on cello, Tony Bird on violin, Mark Van Ziegler on acoustic bass, and Shai Wetzer on drums/Arabic percussion) and off-stage keyboards.
A central turntable embedded in the stage sends characters adrift in some songs and brings them closer together during others, creating a visual image to complement each song's sentiments.
The first seven seconds of music you hear at the very top of the show are a fast, tight, clearly Arabic orchestral run announcing the style of the score and the virtuosity of the musicians playing it. As for the rest of the hauntingly beautiful songs that organically emerge from the dialogue, they paint portraits rather than merely progress the storyline.
The show’s composer/lyricist David Yazbek said in a recent interview on PBS News Hour that each song actually serves as the equivalent of a film close-up. Tewfiq’s close-up – and one of the most moving songs in the show – takes place on a park bench, where Dina asks how it feels to conduct music. In the heart-wrenching “Something Different,” Gabay’s remarkably soulful portrayal deepens and Kennedy allows her character to be vulnerable for the first time as they both close their eyes, sway to the same rhythms, and inhabit the same imagined experience.
The production's simple and singular intent is to tell a small but universal tale about the need for one person – regardless of culture, race or religion – to make a genuine connection with another. And to do so with delicate artistry. It most certainly succeeds on all accounts.
Collectively, director David Cromer and designers Scott Pask (scenic), Tyler Micoleau (lighting), Kai Harada (sound) and Sarah Laux (costumes) have put together an inventive, wonderfully understated production that flies in the face of the family-oriented Disney behemoths and commercial box office extravaganzas that surrounded it on Broadway and that now join it on tour.
This is a show to be embraced and, by all means, not to be missed.