Small story looms large in ‘The Band’s Visit’

By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)

For the past seven weeks, Broadway history has been made through a spectacular bit of casting that only rarely occurs when the world of celluloid intersects with that of the Great White Way.

Katrina Lenk (Dina) and Sasson Gabay (Tewfiq) share a moment in “The Band’s Visit.” (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Hollywood has frequently contributed to the Broadway scene. Interestingly, over the past two decades, many outstanding Broadway productions have been gleaned from independent British movies with cult-like followings. “Billy Elliott,” “Once” and “Kinky Boots” were first small films prior to their becoming smashes on Broadway.

More times than not, though, the original actors from Broadway productions will find their way to being preserved on film. Robert Preston perfected his Harold Hill in “The Music Man” opposite Barbara Cook before he reprised his role in the movie version opposite Shirley Jones five years later. Robert Morse found similar fame when he took his J. Pierpont Finch from the stage in 1961 to the movie screen in 1967 with “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Entire casts from “1776” and “Rent” made it to the big screen intact with only a few cast changes a few years after finding fame on Broadway.

However, it is a supremely extraordinary event when a character created on film by a specific actor is reprised on the stage by that one and same actor. This has happened only once before on Broadway. That was when Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova, were both invited to recreate their original roles of Zorba and Madame Hortense in the film “Zorba The Greek” for the musical revival staged in 1983. (Kedrova, who won the Oscar two decades before, also received a Tony Award for her efforts.)

Sasson Gabay as Egyptian band leader Tewfiq. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

It is against that backdrop that we consider Sasson Gabay, the Israeli actor who won a slew of international awards in 2009 in his role of a prim and proper Egyptian military bandleader whose troupe mistakenly books passage to a remote town in the Negev desert.

This small international film – an Israeli, French and American venture – was transformed into a musical with music by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses. Just like “Hamilton: An American Musical” did in 2015 prior to its transfer to Broadway the following year, “The Band’s Visit” swept the Drama Desk Awards and Outer Circle Critics Awards last year. When it was time for the Tony Awards this year, it took home a slew of coveted trophies – ten in all – including the one for Best Musical.

Successful TV actor Tony Shaloub (“Monk,” “Wings”) won his first Tony Award earlier this year when he was selected as Best Leading Actor in the role of Tewfiq. But like many busy TV actors, Shaloub was unable to stay in the role he had originated. He left to film several episodes of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for Amazon and returned to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre prior to the Tony Awards.

The role requires more acting than singing skills. With only a few exceptions, when Tewfiq does sing on stage, he usually does so as part of the ensemble of other talented cast members. When Shaloub departed the role for good, the producers offered Gabay an opportunity to step into the role and make his Broadway debut.

The cast members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Gabay has negotiated that leap with self-confidence and, like his on stage counterpart, with tremendous resolve. It may be the most logical of all Broadway casting choices for Gabay truly is Tewfiq and vice versa.

Where Gabay interacts with his fellow actors there are small, but important moments. The book famously states that when the Egyptian band showed up “Nothing important happened.” We see, however, that statement is far from truthful.

When the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band arrives in Israel, it is scheduled to perform in Petah Tikvah for an Arab cultural event, but because there is no “p” sound in Arabic, they end up in the similar sounding town of Beit Hatikva. Arab linguists frequently substitute “b” sounds for instances where a “p” occurs in translation.

This charming premise allows us to see the intersection of two cultures and two peoples, each brimming over with loneliness, compassion and despair. This unexpected arrival creates a blip in an otherwise mundane existence for the Israelis and the opportunity for the Egyptians to connect to them and each other.

Gabay is a perfect focus for Katrena Lenk, the Tony Award winner for her role as café owner Dina. Her demeanor and diction are spot on, but her voice, which floats the notes of Yazbek’s ethereal music into the air, is nothing short of exquisite. She is fearless in her depiction of a woman who longs for companionship and wishes to peel away the many layers of this mysterious stranger, who exercises his power over the musicians with quiet efficiency.

Katrina Lenk as café owner Dina. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

In “Omar Shaif,” a song which tells of Dina’s attraction to the tall and dark hero of her past imagination, Lenk’s sensual voice and emotion rise. Later, though, in “Something Different” the two sing a duet that allows their characters to relate to one another, but there is still a disconnect that looms large.

Gabay’s Tewfiq is the stern, icy disciplinarian, while Lenk’s Dina is a rebellious, hot-blooded woman with undulating currents of lustful desire. These two should never meet, nor have anything in common. But when they do share several quiet moments together, we glean much of their humanity.

Supporting cast members John Cariani (Itzik), as a new father, nd Etai Benson (Papi) as an awkward, inexperienced lover provide more than their share of comic relief. Tony winner Ari’el Stachel is charming as the member of the band who thinks he is worldly, but has much to learn about women.

Not nearly enough can be said about the impressive live performances gendered by the band’s members. While individual band members lend support on various songs, there is an electricity that flows through the performance when they play together in “Soraya,” “Haj –Butrus” and the final piece “The Concert.”

David Cromer received a Tony Award for his direction of this small, but impressive work. The mantra for this musical should be “Less is more.” For 100 minutes we are transported to a world where small actions have big consequences. In the end, when the performance, ends we yearn for more.

But that is a show business adage, after all. “Always leave them wanting for more.” With “The Band’s Visit,” there is much to be admired and the casting of Gabay brilliantly continues what should be an enduring Broadway classic for many years to come as well as to offer an unusual side note for movie enthusiasts.

The Band’s Visit” continues its Broadway run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street in New York. For tickets call 212-239-6200.

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