In his play “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote the following line for Duke Orsino: “If music be the food of love, play on.” An allusion to this line is uttered briefly in “The Band’s Visit” — specifically by Avrum (David Studwell) in the song “The Beat of Your Heart” if you’re curious — but the meaning of that line is perhaps the musical’s most potent and palpable theme.
Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, “The Band’s Visit” swept the 2018 Tony Awards with 10 wins. Notably, it is one of only four musicals to win Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical in the same year. This success is quite the achievement for such an understated show. Fortunately, a minimalist production — by Broadway’s standards — is perfect for a tour. “The Band’s Visit” is the rare musical that loses nothing in being put on the road, making its universal themes of love and music just as accessible to those audience members who can’t make the trip to NYC.
“The Band’s Visit” is the story of a traveling Egyptian band called the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. The band has been invited to play at an Arab cultural center in the Israeli town of Petah Tikvah, but due to a misunderstanding, they end up in the similar-sounding town of Beit Hativka. Dina (Chilina Kennedy) takes pity on the stranded bandmembers, feeds them and makes arrangements for them to stay the night before they leave for their proper destination in the morning. The majority of the rest of the play takes place that night as different characters splinter off and experience what pleasures they can find in their circumstances, whether it be the hospitality of a local family, the delights of a quaint, anachronistic roller disco or the simple joys of company and conversation. By the end of the night, intimate secrets are shared, strained love is soothed and ephemeral passion blooms.
From the beginning of the play, Director David Cromer sets a deliberate, idle pace. There are jokes, but the punchlines are almost lazy in their timing, coming from the lips of people who are not strangers to being out in unforgiving sun all day and with nowhere to go. It takes a moment or two to get used to but ultimately serves the tactics of the show well in establishing a strong sense of time and place. All the actors utilize the power of silence expertly, each quiet moment never feeling insignificant or indulgent.
The art of Scenic Designer Scott Pask and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau work in tandem to create a relatively simple aesthetic that is as breathtaking as it is effective. The color palette of this show is gorgeous: robin-egg blues, sandy yellows and tarragon transport the audience member to a foreign land.
And if that wasn’t enough, the sensational music and lyrics of David Yazbek (composer of “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) does the rest of the job. Yazbek’s lyrics — as well as Itamar Moses’ book — are everything. Vivid and sensual, they are the kind of lyrics that demand to be listened to, and the music, sprinkled with Middle Eastern and more familiar Western jazz motifs only amplify those lyrics, never once getting in the way. It is arguably Yazbek’s best work by far, and Chilina Kennedy’s and Joe Joseph’s (Haled) respective renditions of “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love” are shining monuments in a beautifully immersive score.
Both music and love are said to be universal languages. If focusing on the superficial, there’s a lot in this show that could easily seem alien to someone in Kentucky. After all, Middle Eastern music sounds strange to Western ears because there literally are sharps and flats that don’t exist in traditional schools of thought surrounding Western composition, but where “The Band’s Visit” succeeds most is reminding that whatever the methods, the reasons behind the creation of music or any art are really what’s universal. Perhaps it is love that is the food of music after all.
“The Band’s Visit” runs in Whitney Hall at The Kentucky Center through Sunday, December 8. For event and ticket information, please visit kentuckyperformingarts.org.