Musical about Egyptian band’s stop in Israeli town is well worth a visit

Sasson Gabay and Janet Dacal 

By Judith Newmark, Special to the Jewish Light

When strangers unexpectedly descend on tiny, isolated town, you have the makings of . . . an award-winning musical.

“Come from Away,” which played the Fox Theatre last year, tells the fact-based story of the residents of a Newfoundland hamlet who welcomed thousands of rerouted travelers on 9/11. Filled with Celtic-inflected music and vivid characters, it was a standout.

Now the Fox strikes a similar note with “The Band’s Visit,” one of the rare shows to have earned all “Big Six” Tony awards, including Best Musical. This time, the music is Middle Eastern, and the characters are just as memorable and just as appealing.

“The Band’s Visit” takes place in a fictional dot on the Negev map, Bet Hatikva. The unexpected visitors are musicians from the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. They were supposed to perform a concert in Petah Tikvah (a much bigger, and actual, city) but their tickets got mixed up. 

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Stuck with each other for a night, the Israelis welcome the Egyptians with food, accommodations, and plenty of good conversation. Their guests respond with gratitude, great manners and music. 

Together, they even flirt with friendship. It may not be happily ever after – but it’s happy while it lasts.

Israeli actor Sasson Gabay gives a beautiful performance as Tewfiq, the colonel who leads the band. Gabay won the Ophir (the Israeli Oscar) and Best European Actor awards for his portrayal of Tewfiq in the movie that inspired the musical, then reprised the role on Broadway. Obviously, he knows the character well, and plays him from the outside-in. 

Tewfiq is a dignified man, formal in manner and reserved in speech. But when he talks about the arts – especially about music – Gabay warms up Tewfiq with a chuckle, a flash of his eyes, or, best of all, the eloquent gestures of a conductor’s hands. There’s a lot beneath that starched surface.

No wonder Dina is drawn to him.

Janet Dacal plays Dina, owner of a little café, with a similar split: brusque on the surface, simmering beneath. Dina isn’t too crazy about life in Bet Hatikva, something she and other Israelis reveal in the scene-setting opening numbers, “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere.” (It’s an amusing counterpoint to “Welcome to the Rock” in “Come from Away.”)

But she’s a smart, capable woman who immediately takes charge, serving the visitors in her café (“I think we can accommodate you,” she remarks drily, surveying her empty tables.) She finds homes where they can stay overnight. She puts up Tewfiq and his roguish trumpet player, Haled (the charming Joe Joseph), at her own place.

These arrangements introduce us to other compelling characters, particularly Iris, a frustrated young mother (Kendal Hartse), and Papi, an awkward teenager (played on opening night by Danny Burgos, usually by Adam Gabay, Sasson Gabay’s son). 

In a very clever song, Papi explains to Haled what happens when he tries to speak to girls. But Tewfiq and Dina always hold our focus.    

Both of them are “available.” He’s a widower, and she seems to be divorced. (When he asks if her husband will mind two guests, she responds tartly, “If I ever see him again, I’ll ask.”)

But they both know nothing can happen between them. It’s a romance built in a box, a bit like the relationship between Mrs. Anna and the King of Siam in “The King and I.” Still, Itmar Moses, who wrote the book, and David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics, have furnished this box like a fragrant garden. 

Besides good manners, Tewfiq and Dina share a passion for old-fashioned Egyptian music and movies. Dacal gives a haunting delivery of the show’s extremely unusual love song, “Omar Sharif.”

Addressed to Tewfiq only by indirection, Dina recalls how the handsome movie star and the Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum seemed to arrive not on radio or TV signals but on “the jasmine wind . . . Honey in my ear, spice in my mouth.” It’s hard to recall a more refined, yet perfectly clear, description of desire.

The score is exciting, a modern twist on the musical ethnography of Rodgers and Hammerstein and a big change from Yazbek’s earlier hits, “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Adrian Ries, conductor and music director, shows a sure touch with a band that includes not only familiar instruments but also oud, darbouka, riq and Arab percussion.

Still, the problems with this production are all sound-related. Whole chunks of lyric and dialogue simply dissolve. Since almost nobody knows this show yet, we can’t fill in missing words the way we can in “The King and I.” Furthermore, members of the mostly American cast use accents.

Because the Israelis speak Hebrew and the Egyptians speak Arabic, they generally rely on their common language, English. At least, that’s the idea. But the accents make them hard to understand, whether speaking or singing.    

Is that an acoustic problem? Maybe; in any case, the Fox is not the ideal space for “The Band’s Visit.” It’s too big for such a tender musical. 

But it’s a Broadway hit, and in St. Louis that means we will see it first at the Fox. And, despite sound issues, this visit is most welcome here.