Told in cinematic interludes, structured somewhat like a delicately balanced sequence of related short stories, only with music, “The Band’s Visit” centers on the band’s elegant and august leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, the Israeli actor who starred in the film) and the bored and rather unlucky-in-love Dina (the excellent Janet Dacal), who runs a tiny cafe in Bet Hatikva.
Once the motley crew realizes they aren’t in their intended destination of Petah Tikva, they’re embraced by various townspeople and wander off into situations that feel both dreamy and wide awake, comic and melancholy, erotically tinged yet rarely physical. There is much flirting, some ugly lovers’ quarrels, and a good bit of sorrow and regret lurking in the margins. And always, there’s a flicker of passion.
Tewfiq reminds Dina of suave Egyptian star Omar Sharif (“Something Different”). They love all the same old films, know all the same lines. Town jock Zelger (Or Schraiber) and his sidekick, Papi (Adam Gabay, Sasson’s son in real life), go on a double date to a disco roller-skating rink (hilarious), and they invite band member and Chet Baker wannabe Haled (Joe Joseph) to tag along. Haled ends up mending a rift — and stopping the show with “Haled’s Song About Love,” a gorgeously sultry number about the burning embers, the furtive glances, the gradual awakening of desire.
Meanwhile, a lonely character called Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) waits all night by a pay phone for his girlfriend to call. Telephone Guy is a pitiful, haunting image (“Answer Me”), always spinning back into view on scenic designer Scott Pask’s turntable set. Cefalo, in saying almost nothing, expresses oceans of despair and loneliness. Yet ultimately, all is not lost.
Clarinetist Simon (James Rana) goes off with the unemployed Itzik (Pomme Koch), who is celebrating his wife’s birthday with his father-in-law in attendance. Simon plays them his unfinished symphonic overture, which looms like an unanswered question. They all end up singing Gershwin’s “Summertime,” but not everyone has a good time.
“The Band’s Visit” references American jazz and pop culture, delicious old movies, and glorious Arabic rhythms. Though there’s a live orchestra in the Fox pit, the fictive band of the story plays musical instruments onstage in some of the most memorable moments.
Directed by David Cromer, choreographed by Patrick McCollum and costumed by Sarah Laux, the show feels a bit like “The Light in the Piazza” meets “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” (If comparisons to previous musicals fail this reviewer, that’s because there aren’t any.) In the end, the material is deeper, the style more delicate, the themes more resonant than your run-of-the-mill Broadway show.
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True, this touring company took a minute to find its footing on opening night. Likewise, it takes a little time for the audience to buy into the premise. But when everything comes together, there is nothing else like this onstage today. “The Band’s Visit” is a highly original piece of musical theater that pulls at the heartstrings and evokes all the tingles. In the end, we should all be glad that Haled got them into this mess.
“The Band’s Visit”
7:30 p.m. Jan. 22 and 23; 8 p.m. Jan. 24; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Jan. 25; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 26. Through Sunday. $35-$119. Broadway in Atlanta, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org/thebandsvisit.
Bottom line: Exquisite