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DramaWatch: The understated eloquence of ‘The Band’s Visit’

The multiple Tony-winning musical, in Portland through Sunday, is 'a small wonder.' Plus: Poirot at Lakewood, CoHo walks with fire, Fuse postpones.

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“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

That curiously understated announcement, part explanation and part disclaimer, bookends the touring Broadway musical The Band’s Visit, which opened a brief run (through Sunday) at the Keller Auditorium on Tuesday night. Those words are displayed on a scrim at the very start of the show, and you might think they’re intended as a little opening joke, a light-hearted way of lowering expectations. Or perhaps, conversely, they’re meant ironically, downplaying events of great weight. The same lines are delivered again, out loud this time, just before the close of the show. But by then we know they’ve worked both ways.

Joe Joseph, Sasson Gabay, and Janet Ducal in “The Band’s Visit.” Photo: Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

The Band’s Visit, based on a 2007 film of the same name, is a small wonder. For a Broadway musical – especially one so celebrated that it won 10 Tony Awards – it’s surprisingly low-key, eschewing flash and grandiosity at pretty much every turn, and presenting its everyday characters not as unsung heroes but simply as folks muddling through mundane lives in mundane places. Yet it tells its unremarkable tale with such emotional honesty and narrative delicacy, with such a fine attention to those things that cause a quickening amid the quotidian, that it brushes up against the profound and the deeply moving. And even then, with an offhand way that seems to say, “Oh, yeah. That’s always there, too.”

Of course, the main reason you didn’t hear about the Israeli visit by the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is because it’s fictional, a premise of the screenwriter Eran Kolirin. As adapted for the stage by playwright Itamar Moses (whose early plays Outrage and Celebrity Row had their world premieres at Portland Center Stage), the story begins with what we might think of as a wrong turn at the phonetic crossroads. The small orchestra has arrived in Tel Aviv, but no one has come to greet them and take them on to their destination, the city of Petah Tikvah. Determined that nothing should keep the visit from being a success, the band’s straitlaced leader, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, instructs one of his men to buy bus tickets. “But,” objects the carefree young Haled, “my English not so good.” That and his Egyptian accent result in the band turning up not in the culturally rich Petah Tikvah, but in a (fictitious) dump of a desert town called Bet Hatikva. Stuck without another bus until the next morning, the musicians are taken in by Dina (Janet Dacal, at once jaded and luminous), the proprietor of a little cafe, and her employees. In one of several wonderfully pop-savvy songs from composer/lyricist David Yazbek, they tell their crestfallen guests, “Welcome to Nowhere – with a B.”

The setup might seem ripe for examinations of ethnic/political strife, and the suggestion of suspicion or hostility on the part of some Israelis hovers on the margins, but the story takes the common humanity of its characters as its ground without making a big deal of it. What we get instead are the quiet tensions and yearnings and regrets of normal life, seeming all the more poignant here because neither the book nor the songs tries to pump them up into something larger. The textbook concept of the American musical is that characters break into song when and because they reach a point where mere dialogue can’t contain their emotions. But here, music is presented as simply a part of everyday life (the band’s Middle Eastern-flavored instrumentals interspersed throughout are a great treat); it’s a source of joy but also a tool for coping with the boredom and disappointment. With no epiphanies on offer, why not sing the small, persistent feeling? 

Before writing for Broadway, Yazbek made several albums of indie-rock, somewhat in the mold of XTC or Elvis Costello, that brimmed with craft and wit but sometimes seemed too invested in their own cleverness. Work for musicals such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels imposed a helpful discipline on his writing, and the restrained storytelling ethos of The Band’s Visit inspired by far his best work yet. His old word-nerd ways are put to good effect in “Papi Hears the Ocean,” in which a shy guy from the cafe laments his anxious awkwardness around women. Right afterward comes a delightful contrast and antidote in “Haled’s Song About Love,” a cool, Chet Baker-inspired jazz ode advising a relaxed approach to romance.

Through the artfully braided stories of Tewfiq and Dina, Papi, Haled, a young slacker named Itzik and his frustrated wife, and a mysterious sad sack known only as Telephone Guy, themes of faith, hope, perseverance, forgiveness and other big ideas gently poke their way into our consciousness.  Some tensions resolve harmoniously (if, we suspect, temporarily), while the show’s most tantalizing motif – the attraction between Dina and Tewfiq –  ends on a blue note. 

The final song, “Answer Me,” takes us at last into something approaching the swelling expression more typical of a big Broadway show, but it feels so organic and so well-earned that the lump in your throat or the tear in your eye might take you by surprise. I guess maybe that’s because all along The Band’s Visit has let us decide for ourselves what feels important.

The flattened stage

Opening

Mystery and detective stories always keep me guessing. As in, trying to guess why such tales have such enduring popularity. The foundational question of the genre – “Whodunit?” – so rarely strikes me as interesting. But for any form, there’s something to be said for the work of its most masterly practitioners.

Portland stage veteran Mark Schwahn plays Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Lakewood Theatre’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Lakewood Theatre photo

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, first published in 1934, is a classic that has been adapted numerous times for radio, film and television. A few years ago the American playwright Ken Ludwig adapted it for the stage, and that’s the version that Lakewood Theatre is presenting, Jan. 7-Feb. 13, directed by David Sikking. And this production boasts something I find very interesting: a cast featuring such redoubtable Northwest stage talents as Vana O’Brien, Marilyn Stacey, Tom Mounsey, Tom Walton, and Kylie Rose.

Portlander Samuel Eisen-Meyer’s Walking the World With This Fire confronts an aspect of American life so pervasive that most of us rarely notice it – what CoHo Productions describes as “the psychology and deception of United States domestic imperialism.”

Composed of short films, physical installation, large-scale painting, light and sound design, and 3D fabrication, it’s not theater, really, but rather a multimedia installation. Kudos to CoHo, though, for following its artist-driven mission to new places.

Postponed

“’The show must go on’ is pretty passe,” Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s Sara Fay Goldman said to DramaWatch a couple of months ago, talking about the ways in which the Covid pandemic has caused some of the theater world’s foundational tenets to shift. That outlook – and the surging infection rates being reported as the Covid omicron variant spreads around the globe – combine to form a bit of justifiable caution: the delay of the next Fuse production.

The Queers, by Mikki Gillette, was to have its world premiere this Friday at the Back Door Theater. But now the run of the trans-themed play – one of two works by trans women writers in the current Fuse season – has been rescheduled for March 11-April 10.

Sponsor
Portland Chamber Orchestra Portland Oregon

Best line I read this week

“Those who forget the past may be condemned to repeat it, but those who sentimentalize the past are rewarded with best-seller status.”

– Carlos Lozada in The New Yorker, from an article about (the unsentimental) Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, by Elizabeth D. Samet

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.
Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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