Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Sept. 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When I first read about “The Band’s Visit,” long before learning that a touring version would be coming to Chicago, I wanted to rush to New York to see it just for David Yazbek’s music and lyrics. Sure, Itamar Moses’ book, based on Eran Kolirin’s screenplay for the 2007 Israeli film, sounded intriguing, and the fact that the director was Chicago native David Cromer was a plus. So were the stars of the Broadway production, Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, which racked up ten 2018 Tony Awards as well as myriad other accolades. But for me the Middle Eastern-inflected score was the biggest draw.
Now that the show is here—at the Cadillac Palace for a mere two weeks—I’m happy to say that it exceeds my expectations musically. The smallish orchestra, composed both of actors playing instruments and behind-the-scenes musicians, uses the oud, darbouka, riq, and Arabic percussion to great effect but also incorporates jazz, blues, classical, and other genres seamlessly. Yazbek’s songs range from wryly humorous to haunting, beautifully capturing the expectations, frustrations, longings, and losses of the people in the remote Israeli desert town of Bet Hatikva and their Egyptian visitors.
That’s where the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra end up in 1996, when no one from the Arab organization that invited them to play at the inauguration of a new cultural center arrives to meet them at the Tel Aviv bus station. They’re supposed to be going to Petah Tikva, but because of a language problem, they are sold tickets to backwater Bet Hatikva instead.
Once there, the locals quickly tell them the village not only has no cultural center, it has no culture. Their lives of not-so-quiet desperation, dissatisfaction, and disappointment are ideally rendered in the early numbers “Waiting” (for something to happen) and “Welcome to Nowhere.”
Worse yet, there’s no bus out until the next morning, so the eight musicians—in powder-blue uniforms that make them look like refugees from St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—have to stay the night. The residents take them in, led by Dina (Chilina Kennedy), the restless cafe owner who obviously doesn’t belong there yet probably will never leave. She becomes especially intrigued with the straight-laced band leader, Col. Tewfiq Zakaria (Sasson Gabay), a repressed man of a certain age with a secret past. While Gabay isn’t as well-known here as Shalhoub, he did originate the role in the film and took it over on Broadway.
Uncharacteristically low-key for a Broadway hit, the beguiling 90-minute show focuses on the halting romantic relationship between Dina and Tewfiq as she shows him the town and they bond over music and film during a single evening. Or at least that’s the idea, bolstered her moving solos (movingly sung by Kennedy) of love and deep longing, “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different.”
But on opening night, her charms didn’t seem to be working. Though both actors gave fine performances, there was no real spark or connection between them. If asked, I would have said: “He’s just not that into her.”
On the other hand, the links forged between other townspeople and the visitors—again because of music, since they speak different languages and have only a little English in common—are more successful. Simon (James Rana), who has written only a few lines of his clarinet concerto, uses them to soothe the crying baby of Itzik and his unhappy wife, with whom he is spending the night. At a roller-skating rink, musician Haled (Joe Joseph) kindly advises inept Papi (Adam Gabay) on how to court the girl he has a crush on in “Haled’s Song About Love,” after Papi amusingly confesses his fears in “Papi Hears the Ocean.” Even the Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo), who spends every evening guarding the town’s only pay phone vainly waiting for his girlfriend to call, finally finds satisfaction in “Answer Me.”
Scott Pask’s scenic design conjures up a dusty desert town well, and the turntable that facilitates smooth scene changes also mirrors the way the residents’ lives go in circles; there’s even a joke about it in the script. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting manages to reflect both the physical and emotional course of the evening. Sarah Laux’s costumes, Kai Harada’s sound design, and the other technical elements are equally good, but – and this is a big but – I would love to see “The Band’s Visit” in a truly intimate theater. Thinking about David Cromer’s marvelously immersive versions of “Picnic” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Writers Theatre makes me wonder what he could do with this there. Just saying.