Family drama: Father and son share the stage in ‘The Band’s Visit’

Adam Gabay 

By Judith Newmark, Special to the Jewish Light

Perhaps you have worked with one of your parents in a family business. Did you find that satisfying? Grating? Routine?

If you’re very lucky, maybe you considered it “magical.”

That’s how Adam Gabay describes appearing with his father, Israeli actor Sasson Gabay, in the touring company of “The Band’s Visit,” now making its way to St. Louis

“We are father and son, yes, and we also are friends,” said the 21-year-old actor, who plays the part of a shy, awkward Israeli lad, Papi. “It’s an amazing experience.

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“We did a couple of episodes of (an Israeli) TV series  together, long ago. But I never thought it would happen again. 

“You understand, my father is a big star, a very big star.”

Perhaps the son is on his way. Before “The Band’s Visit” he’s appeared in other Israeli vehicles, including HBO’s “Our Boys” — a drama about a terrible crime that forces investigators to explore different aspects of Israeli society. Adam Gabay played one of the key roles: Avishay, a deeply unhappy yeshiva student.  

One of Israel’s most celebrated and awarded actors, Sasson Gabay (sometimes spelled Gabai) actually starred in the movie that inspired the Tony-winning musical from composer/lyricist David Yazbek. 

His performance as an Egyptian band leader, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, brought him another Ophir Award, the Israeli Oscar. He’s won plenty of other honors, too. Currently, he’s one of the stars of the acclaimed Israeli series “Shtisel,” playing the uncle, Nachum. It’s available on Netflix. 

Tony Shalhoub — well-known as TV detective “Monk,” now playing the scholarly father on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — created the role of Tewfiq on Broadway. After Shalhoub left the show Gabay stepped in, and now reprises the role on tour. 

Gabay told the Washington Post that he originally thought the movie was too delicate to be turned into a stage musical; now, he’s glad they didn’t ask his approval. He says actors around the world, not just the U.S., dream of a show. 

His character, Tewfiq, leads the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. The orchestra has been scheduled to perform in Petah Tikvah. But, due to a mix-up buying tickets, the musicians travel instead to Bet Hatikva, an isolated Nowheresville in the Negev.

There Dina, owner of a tiny café, sees that the group gets food and shelter — and even a taste of friendship, which is reciprocated.

Acclaimed on Broadway, “The Band’s Visit” is one of only a handful of show’s to win “the Big Six” Tony awards: Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical.

Of those celebrated musical numbers, two belong to Adam Gabay: “Papi Hears the Ocean” and “Haled’s Song About Love.”

“It’s an honor to play Papi,” the young actor said. “The show is a wonderful representation of the Middle East — the best way Americans can learn about the Middle East in general, Israel and Egypt in particular. I feel really, really honored to be part of representing Israel.

Shows like “The Band’s Visit,” “Shtisel” and “Our Boys” point to a surge of interest in Israeli culture, he believes. And Israeli productions, like most productions everywhere, look at stressors in the wider world.

But Gabay says that he’s aware of another social difference, apart from the differences between Egyptians and Israelis, that informs “The Band’s Visit.” 

It’s the difference between young adults who grew up in small towns, and those who grew up in big cities. And he suspects that’s the same the world over.

Quite unlike Papi, Gabay belongs to the second group. He grew up in Tel Aviv, part of an artistic family that straddled the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. (Born in Baghdad, Sasson Gabay is an Iraqi Jew; his wife, children’s author Daphna Halas Gabay, comes from a Polish-Jewish family.) “I grew up around amazing artists.  

“Compare it to America,” Gabay continued. “Papi is from a very, very small town, like small towns here. The kids don’t see much theater, they don’t hear many concerts, they don’t visit many galleries. 

“But kids who grow up in LA and New York have a different culture from kids in small towns. Tel Aviv is like that, too. 

“In big cities, kids feel that all the options are open. You can be an actor, you can be a painter, you can do anything. 

“Tel Aviv is like that, too. You see the possibilities. I did.”