By Griffin Brammer, Show Manager
I went into this show blind. The only thing I had heard about The Band’s Visit came from a friend who worked in the admissions office who said, “It will either be the most life-changing musical you’ve ever seen or you’ll leave halfway through thinking it was pointless.” This was a harsh step up from the “mixed reception” you usually hear from these kinds of niche musicals.
As soon as the curtain lifted and the show’s arid desert set was revealed, I suddenly understood the mixed emotions, and I was subsequently blown away by the rest.
The impeccable set design of The Band’s Visit is what first stuck out. Arid apartment buildings with rusted windows and satellite dishes jutted high into the rafters of the theater. A small concrete café plastered with Hebrew ads served as the main focal point on the stage.
Of course, one comes to expect such production value from the Aronoff, but you could easily fool me into thinking they airdropped a chunk of the Middle East into Cincinnati.
The Band’s Visit centers around a group of Muslim musicians from Alexandria, Egypt who accidentally wind up in the small Israeli village of Bet Hatikva. While there, they must stay the night with the town’s primarily Jewish residents.
When one imagines what a musical about Muslim and Jewish people in Israel could possibly be about, it’s easy to make assumptions. What is so touching, then, is that this musical subverts those expectations to deliver a story with themes, characters and a love that had only ever been portrayed by White actors. In an industry dominated by Whiteness, The Band’s Visit truly lets its Arab cast shine.
From that set up, the story delves into three overarching tales. Second-in-command Simon (James Rana), with his dreams of becoming a conductor and composer, stays with the town bum, Itzik (Clay Singer), and his estranged wife. The rookie Haled (Ali Louis Bourzgui) with his playboy aspirations plays wingman for resident Papi (Coby Getzug). Finally, the band’s no-nonsense conductor, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) stays with the equally-cold café owner, Dina (Janet Dacal), as they discover more about themselves and each other on their night out on the town.
While the entire cast oozes charm and talent, it is truly Gabay and Dacal who were the stars of the show. Not only was Tefwig and Dina’s story the best of the three, but with every line you could hear one swallow their feelings for the other, burdened by fears of their past lives.
You start to feel the heat of the Israeli desert mesh with the warmth they begin to exude for each other. They are both the best thing for each other, but at the absolute worst time.
The Band’s Visit is a painfully realistic look into love and its challenges. With stunning and gut-wrenching songs like “Omar Sherif” and “Something Different,” we start to see Tewfiq and Dina realize that they are just a fleeting moment.
It all culminates with the chorus-driven “Answer Me,” just as symbolically as the dawn breaks and the town’s cycle begins anew, Tewfiq and Dina snap into reality and come to the crushing realization that love does know bounds.
It truly is a shame that The Band’s Visit isn’t more recognized than it is. If not for its stellar story, music or technical work, then it should at least be praised for the leap it has made for Arab representation in theater.
Give this one a chance if you’re in the mood for something different and aren’t afraid to be disappointed by a love story. And whatever you do, be sure to stick around after the first curtain falls.