A Gentle, Touching Story of What Might Have Been
Normally we go to theatre to see heartwarming, uplifting stories that unfold before our eyes. The Band’s Visit is a poignant tale, but it’s more about what might have been, than what we see happening on stage. On Broadway, this show was nominated for 11 Tony awards, winning 10 including Best Musical. Based on a 2007 Israeli movie, The Band’s Visit is now on stage at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish theatre.
First a confession: I saw The Band’s Visit on Broadway last year, and nope, I didn’t enjoy it. It was slow moving and strange. I didn’t feel any connection to the characters. However, since it was such a hit show, and had won so many Tonys, I decided to give it a second chance. This time I enjoyed it so much more.
Eight men, members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, arrive in Israel from Egypt. They are booked to perform at an Arab cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva, but by mistake (because Arabic has no “p” sound, it is usually replaced with “b”), the band takes a bus to the village of Bet Hatikva in the middle of a desert.
The Egyptian band immediately realizes their mistake when they arrive at this sleepy Israeli village where we are reminded that “nothing ever happens”. There is no bus until the next day, nor are there any hotels to spend the night. The band members in their fancy, light-blue dress uniforms look out of place. They eat at the local diner where the owner, Dina, makes arrangements for them to stay the night at her apartment, her friends’ apartment, and in her restaurant. The story flips between the band members at various locations with their hosts. Obviously, Egyptians and Israelis are long-time enemies; yet under these strange circumstances, the Israelis are welcoming hosts, and the Egyptians are grateful guests. They share their life stories, and there are hints of possible friendship, even love. But the band leaves the next day, and the audience is left to ponder what might have been.
It’s an interesting plot, so why did I enjoy it more the second time? The easy answer is a different cast. Chilina Kennedy is in the role of Dina, the reluctant, sarcastic hostess who eventually opens up to her guests. Kennedy is our Canadian treasure, a brilliant triple-threat performer who was last seen in Toronto as Carole King in Beautiful. She also had the same role on Broadway for over 1000 performances. Prior to that, she impressed audiences at Stratford Festival in roles such as Maria in West Side Story, Eva Peron in Evita, Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar which went on to Broadway. As well, she was Nellie Forbush in South Pacific at Huron Country Playhouse. Her rendition of “Omar Sharif” in The Band’s Visit is perfection, as she longs for something more in her little village.
Humour is evident in this Toronto show, and there were several laugh-out-loud moments that just slid by in the Broadway show. Both the actors playing the band members and the local people have great comedic timing and take advantage of the brief, witty moments in the script.
Touching moments show up as we follow the different characters around the village. A couple whose marriage is in difficulty is given a chance to renew their love after a band member opens their eyes to what they have. Another band member encourages a young couple at the roller-skating rink to get together. A young man stands at the telephone all day waiting for his girlfriend to call. Something good comes from all these fleeting relationships during the band’s brief visit.
It is a very sweet cultural exchange, and there are heartwarming and haunting songs. The audience is left wondering what might have been and what could possibly happen in the future.
The Band’s Visit continues with eight shows a week at Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto. Call Ticket King 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.
Photo: Chilina Kennedy & Sasson Gabay in The Band’s Visit, North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Book by Itamar Moses
Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin
Directed by David Cromer
Musical Direction by Andrea Grody & Dean Sharenow
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Performed by Chilina Kennedy, Sasson Gabay et al.
Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto
September 17 to October 20, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson