On paper, it doesn’t work. A musical without any epic love story or giant conflict, no big dance or chorus numbers, a plot that barely sets up a narrative and then fails to resolve anything, where the leading man doesn't sing and the Israelis and Egyptians brought together by accident not only don't argue over religion or politics, it's never even mentioned or considered. A musical where the characters speak often in Hebrew and Arabic and communicate with each other in broken English.
But put the thing on stage, and you have one of the loveliest musicals you could hope for, now on national tour and in Houston courtesy of Broadway at the Hobby. What The Band’s Visit (winner of ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek book by Itamar Moses) lacks in traditional musical trappings, it more than makes up for with a quietly powerful dose of humanity accompanied by music that will instantly make you want to shout Shalom/Salaam as you sway your hips and shoulders in time to the middle eastern sounds.
Like the 2007 Israeli movie it’s based on, the musical tells the story of an Egyptian police ceremonial band invited to play at an Israeli Arab cultural center in Petah Tikvah. But language being what it is, and Hebrew being like most languages in that many words can sound the same if it’s not your mother tongue, the band instead finds itself in Bet Hatikvah, a small nowhere Israeli town (rendered perfectly with nondescript buildings the color of sand) where waiting for something, anything to happen is the general pastime.
The night the band spends in the town, waiting for a bus to the correct town is the entirety of the story we follow. It’s an evening where nothing really happens, yet small windows into longings and regrets and hopes for the future are revealed.
Our leads, band conductor Tewfiq (an elegant and gentlemanly Sasson Gabay, who also originated the part in the movie version) and café owner Dina (Bligh Voth, an excellent stand-in on opening night), are the glue that connects the townsfolk and the band. It was Dina after all, rough around the edges and sarcasm on full throttle, who invited the band to stay with her and her friends for the night.
It might be there’s an attraction there. Maybe it’s just the lure of the other. Or perhaps it’s just two adults, who’ve loved and lost and who hold deep regret, finding comfort in a moment of uncomplicated company.
As the other band members bunk around town, stories and experiences are shared with their Israeli hosts. All having to do with love. An Israeli regales his Arab guests with tales of seducing his wife thanks to his fiddle playing, while his own children’s marriage suffers under his watch. A Casanova band member hits the town with his Israeli hosts and passes his seduction tips onto the one in desperately hilarious need of girl advice. Advice the band member will soon no longer need himself thanks to a cultural imperative waiting for him back home.
They are small stories, everyday stories. Some funny, some sweet, some sad. They are the gentle stories of real people sharing moments with strangers.
But make no mistake, gentle doesn’t mean dull, not with the music we’re treated to here and musicians that seem to come at us from everywhere.
In addition to the five band members we see spending the night, several others are scattered around the turntable stage throughout the show, either accompanying the action or playing solo between scenes. And man can they play.
Violin, cello, clarinet, sax, flute, bass, drums, guitar and instruments less familiar such as Darbouka/Riq and Arabic Percussion flood the stage with their mournful, even when joyous, wails that comprise that uniquely gut stirring middle eastern sound. Oh, and there’s also a bit of Chet Baker thrown in as well. Just trust that it works.
And it’s not just the music that captures our attention, these are 15 numbers whose lyrics are smart and funny and worth listening to. You won’t find any show-off numbers here, it would spoil the feel. What we do get instead are songs that bring us closer to these characters as they reveal small bits of themselves in an effort to connect to their guests and to their own understanding of how they fit into the world.
Actually, I take that back. There is one show off number and it comes courtesy of the band after the whole thing is done. Please do stick around – it’s marvelous.
The Band’s Visit continues through February 2 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For tickets call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$95.
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