I know. I get it. Everyone is excited about Hamilton coming to Chrysler Hall in December, but the first show of this season’s "Broadway in Norfolk" is also something special. The Band’s Visit debuts in Norfolk from October 29th through November 3rd.
This “little” musical won ten Tony Awards in 2018, including Best Musical. That’s a lot of Tony Awards. Of course, the The Producers holds the record with twelve. Hamilton won eleven, but the number three spot is this show--a story you probably haven't heard much about.
The Band’s Visit is the tale of a troupe of Egyptian musicians who end up in the wrong town in the middle of the Israeli dessert. Stranded for the night, the locals take them in and some form of “magical alchemy” occurs. This transforms everyone, and not in the ways you'd expect.
I spoke with actor Pomme Koch, who plays the role of Itzik, a “bum who hangs out in the town’s only café.” Koch started with the show on Broadway as understudy to eight roles. As he watched the musical coming together he thought, “It is so original and flies in the face of any other musical, it will never survive the previews.” He took over the role of Itzik on Broadway. His most difficult role to understudy became his favorite role to perform.
Koch, who studied both theater and political science at University of Michigan (Go Blue!), calls it the “best of dramatic theater blended with the best of musical theater.” Sometimes musicals can be formulaic. There is the basic love story. There are flashy costumes and brightly lit sets. There are big dance numbers with the full chorus. There are tender ballads. The Band’s Visit is more intimate and intense. There is no big dance number, although there are roller skates.
It's a thoughtful, emotional story, not about the Arab-Israeli conflict -- but rather, a tale spun around the people of a town called Bet Hatikva, where everyone is in a state of “emotional stasis." The musicians from Egypt are dropped into their town and “seem to turn everything from black and white to Technicolor” in just one evening.
The Band’s Visit is based on the 2007 movie of the same name. The movie might have won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film except for a technicality. Since the Israelis in the story can't speak Arabic and the Egyptians can't speak Hebrew, they communicate in English. And because most of the movie was in English, it couldn't be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
The star of that film is Sasson Gaby, who plays Tewfiq, the leader of the band. Known as “the Robert De Niro of Israel,” Gaby also played the role on Broadway and is starring in this production of the show as well at Chrysler Hall. This is a rare opportunity for Hampton Roads to see several members of an original Broadway cast in a touring production.
Pomme Koch tells me that Sasson Gaby has been “one of the most prominent and leading actors in Israeli theater, television and cinema for over 40 years.” He is revered in Israel. He relates that, Gaby took this touring job so that he could reprise the role of Tewfiq and travel North America with his son, actor Adam Gaby--who is playing another starring role as Papi, a character who works at the café and is also stuck in his life and his love. Adam Gaby appeared in the HBO mini-series Our Boys as Avishay Elbaz.
There is a sense of destiny, mixed with a little touch of magic in The Band’s Visit. These two groups of people come together and seem to “unlock” each other. There is soul. There's heart. And as Pomme Koch says, “There is nothing else like it.”