“The Group’s Visit” Takes Advantage of Writers’ Intimacy | Arts and entertainment

At the end of my tour review of The Band’s Visit at the Cadillac Palace Theater in 2019, I wrote that I would like to see it in a truly intimate theater. Chicago native David Cromer directs the show, and my thought was inspired by the wonderfully compelling versions of Picnic and A Streetcar Named Desire he had previously done for Writers Theatre.

I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. Writers Theater is now partnering with TheatreSquared for the regional premiere of the musical, the first original production in America following the national Broadway tour. It was not directed by Cromer, but rather by Zee Allihan, who directed around the country and was Cromer’s collaborator and assistant on the tour. Writers also builds on its recent success with Once for the immersive style.

One interesting thing about The Band’s Visit, set in 1996 and based on Eran Kolirin’s screenplay for the 2007 Israeli film, is that nothing much happens. Itamar Moses’ book examines a night in the life of the residents of the remote desert town of Bet Hatikva, Israel, and the members of Egypt’s ceremonial police orchestra in Alexandria, who are stranded there when no one shows up at the Tel Aviv bus station to meet them.

They were supposed to go to Petah Tikva to find an Arab cultural center, but due to a language problem, they instead buy tickets to Bet Hatikva, which, the locals tell them, not only has no cultural center, but no culture. Also, no hotel and no bus until the next morning. But there are mostly good-natured people who take in the visitors, and what we see are the efforts of strangers to form connections across cultural and personal barriers.

Much of this longing and loss, anticipation and disappointment, is expressed in the Middle Eastern-influenced music and lyrics of David Yazbek. Some of the songs are dryly humorous, like “Welcome to Nowhere” and “Papi Hears the Ocean” about what happens to a shy boy every time he tries to talk to a girl. Others are stunningly beautiful, including ‘Beat Of Your Heart’, ‘Omar Sharif’ and ‘Something Different’.

Performed by the performers on stage and a small band off stage, the music envelops us in surround sound and is the highlight of the evening, thanks in part to music supervisor Andra Velis Simon and music director Jason Burrow. It features oud, darbuka and Arabic percussion and uses jazz, blues, classical and other genres.

The ensemble is in a whirlwind of movement much of the time, but the quieter moments are among the most effective. When Simon (Jonathan Shabu) soothes Iris’ (Dana Saleh Omar) crying baby by finally finishing the beginning of his clarinet concerto, the entire audience seems to breathe a sigh of relief.

Simon is one of four members of the Police Orchestra, with a few less than the touring version. The others are Kamal (Adam Kutalshat); the flirtatious Khaled (Armand Akbari), a fan of Chet Baker (who unfortunately does not play a Baker-style trumpet solo), and their leader and conductor, Colonel Tufig (Rom Barkhordar), a strict and very proper man, tormented by a tragedy from his past .

The possibility of romance between Tufig and Dina (Sophie Madorski), the owner of the town cafe, is at the center of the story. A former dancer who feels her life is wasted and slipping away, she is desperate for something different. Although both actors act well and she sings beautifully, they never create enough warmth between them.

Other townspeople whose dramas play out include Itzik (Dave Honigman), who can’t understand why his wife Iris is angry all the time; his father-in-law Avrum (Michael Joseph Mitchell), who misses his dead wife very much, and the Telephone Operator (Harper Caruso), who waits every night by the payphone for his girlfriend to call.

Unfortunately, director Alikhan and his designers do not convincingly create the feeling of a dusty provincial town. Picturesque elements like a few fluorescent lights and a screen with blurred projections make no sense. The different locations are sometimes so abstract that it is difficult to understand what they are supposed to represent. The fact that the furniture is constantly moving doesn’t help.

Some of the costume accessories are distracting, like Dinah’s bright orange crocs and the different roller skates for each character in the roller rink scene. Papi wears powder blue skates with pink wheels, for example; goth girl sports black skates with red pom poms and red wheels.

Alikhan’s blocking isn’t as good as it could be either. I sat on one side of the theater and often couldn’t see what was going on on the other side because the actors got in the way. It also seems to default to paying attention to the center of the house and ignoring the sides, including for Dinah’s opening lines and even the closing bows of the lead characters.

On the other hand, intimacy is a big plus for The Band’s Visit at Writers, and musically it’s a real winner.

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