The Band’s Visit is a thematic cousin to the more upbeat Come From Away, which came through town recently. Again, there’s the accidental arrival of strangers in a strange land, the warmth of their welcome, and the transformative encounters that result — powerful messages at a fragile historical moment.
This latest treat from the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Philadelphia series swept the 2018 Tony Awards with 10 wins, including best musical. It’s at the Academy of Music through Jan. 19.
A collection of delicate vignettes about love, longing, and the ability of music to transcend cultural barriers, the 95-minute, one-act show begins with an Egyptian police band finding — or rather losing — its way to the wrong Israeli town.
Instead of a bustling arts metropolis about to inaugurate an Arab cultural center, the band lands in a similar-sounding place composed of a few apartments, a café, and a handful of residents waiting for something to happen.
Not much does, even when the pastel blue-uniformed band invades the town’s “beige,” “barren,” and “boring” desert precincts (the set design is by Scott Pask, with costumes by Sarah Laux and lighting by Tyler Micoleau). Not much, that is, except sparks of human connection animated by David Yazbek’s sublime, Middle East-inspired score.
The most vibrant character and the emotional center of The Band’s Visit is Dina (Janet Dacal), a charismatic Israeli café owner whose husband has left her, but whose desires and dreams linger. Enter Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the band’s conductor, a widower burdened by both his dignity and a buried pain.
In a single evening, the two enact a not-quite-love story that gives rise to the show’s most haunting melodies (“Omar Sharif” and “Something Different”).
Yazbek, a rock singer-songwriter turned Broadway composer and lyricist (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie), references Gershwin, jazz, and the Arabic music of his childhood in his most gorgeous score yet. Book writer Itamar Moses subtly tweaks Eran Kolirin’s screenplay for the 2007 Israeli film on which the musical is based, underlining the story’s poignancy.
Under David Cromer’s direction, the ensemble wrings considerable humor from tiny moments.
The hapless Papi (Adam Gabay), an Israeli, learns how to court a woman from the would-be playboy Haled (Joe Joseph), who seeks romance before succumbing to an arranged marriage in Egypt. And a lovelorn character dubbed Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) waits patiently beside a pay phone for a call that may never come.
The line between humor and despair turns out to be razor-thin.
Dacal is a lovely singer and a graceful, willowy presence, even if she doesn’t dominate the show as completely as Broadway’s Katrina Lenk. Gabai reprises his role from both the film and on Broadway (where he replaced Tony Shalhoub) with low-key authenticity.
David Studwell is arresting as Avrum, who describes how he wooed his late wife in the rousing number “The Beat of Your Heart.” The question that concludes that song is the soul of the show: “But music and love, who can tell them apart?”
The band — playing Middle Eastern instruments, onstage and off — is terrific. The one off note here is the mismatch of production and venue.
The Academy’s cavernous spaces are antithetical to the intimacy The Band’s Visit demands. On opening night, boisterous latecomers and a ringing cellphone were additional distractions.
The Band’s Visit
Through Jan. 19 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.