Thursday, November 07, 2019

“The Band’s Visit” is an emotionally seductive slice of life musical drama

It’s “1996, the  Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Police Orchestra, just arrived in Israel, and are waiting in Tel Aviv's central bus station. They expect to be welcomed by a representative from a local Arab cultural organization, but no one shows up. 

The group's leader, the quiet Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, decides the group will take the bus and instructs Haled, a younger officer to purchase the group's bus tickets. At the ticket booth, Haled asks the clerk for a ticket to the city of Petah Tikvah, but due to his Egyptian accent, she misunderstands him and sells him tickets to the isolated desert town of "Bet Hatikva," far away from the Jerusalem suburb where the concert is to be held.

Sounds like an interesting tale, but, not necessarily one that would provide a plot for a movie and a musical.  But, it actually is the basis for a well-reviewed Israeli film, and a Broadway musical which won the 2017 Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, and won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Band’s Visit,” which is now on stage at the Connor Palace, in Playhouse Square for a three-week run, opened in November, 2017 and ran through April 7, 2019, racking up a solid 589 performances.  While most Broadway musicals hope to break even, the producers of this “small, touching show,” announced in September, 2018 that it had recouped its initial investment of $8.75 million, and was on its way to be a major profit maker.  
The Key Bank Broadway production is one of 27 stops that the touring company will make in its trek across the U.S.
The show has been called "exquisite", noting that Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) have "created a small, touching show [with] character depth and strong sense of place."  It has been labeled, “a Broadway rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups." It was also praised for its "remarkable and boundlessly compassionate humanism.”

Most definitive is the advice giving statement, “All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the murmurs, whispers and silences of human existence at its most mundane — and transcendent.”

Don’t go to “The Band’s Visit” expecting show stoppers, production numbers, a chorus of singers and dancers.  This is a musical drama much in the mold of “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen” that tells a story woven together by spoken and sung words, as well as music. 

Don’t go expecting a discussion of Arab-Israeli issues and problems.  This is a play about people, not political conflicts.  It’s about real people, not politicians or heroes or villains.

The show probes ordinary problems of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Non-events. There is angst. Some real.  Some dramatically perceived.  There are no earth-shattering moments.  No solutions.  Just an opportunity to examine the human condition within the context of intimate conversations and some well-perceived and memorable music

The cast is excellent. The Egyptian band all play their own instruments.  (Don’t run for the exits at the end of the show as there is a wonderful short concert performed by the band after the curtain call.)

Chilina Kennedy inhabits the role of Dina.  Sasson Gabay displays just the right character smarts as Tewfiq, the leader of the band.  Mike Cefalo, as the Telephone Man, sings the plaintive “Answer Me” with wonderful tenderness.  Joe Joseph adds some delightful comic moments as Haled.  

Be aware that this is an intimate show which would play better in the cozy Allen or Hanna Theatres where the audience could feel they were eaves-dropping, rather than in the cavernous Connor Palace, but economics doesn’t allow for that option. 

No stars?  No, this is not a star vehicle.  Regular people playing regular people.

Cleveland connection:  The show’s producer, Orin Wolf is a 1997 University School graduate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Band’s Visit” is a slice of life, character-centered show, woven together with spoken and sung words and music, that is filled with caring humanism.  

The Band’s Visit” runs through November 24, 2019, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series at the Connor Palace.  To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Dynamic, must see “HAIR” commemorates Kent State Massacre of 1970

On May 4, 1970, over a period of 13-seconds, nearly 70 shots were fired upon Kent State University unarmed students by the Ohio State National Guard.  The students, and their supporters, were protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by the United States, part of the ill-conceived Vietnam incursion.  Forever after, to be known as “The Kent State Massacre,” the attack killed four and wounded nine others.

It is entirely appropriate, as the university prepares for the 50th anniversary of that event, they do so with the staging of “Hair:  The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” 

The James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot’s hippie, counterculture, sexual revolution musical that introduced rock and roll to Broadway, shocked the nation with nudity, swearing, anti-Vietnam protest, sexuality, drug usage, and irreverence for the American flag.  It is a perfect example of theatre representing the era from which it comes and how to teach history through the arts.  

Hair” is often referred to as the ending the bookend of the era known as the Golden Age of Broadway.  The first true book musical, “Oklahoma” (1943), set the format for what is known as the American Musical, and the Age of Aquarius musical (1968) ushered in major changes to that format, showcased by a racially integrated cast, taking on a serious topic, and adding rock music to the genre’s lexicon.  

The script is time-specific, furthering the concept that theatre is representative of the era from which it comes.  “Hair” is the 1960s, a time of political activity, flower children, drugs, long-haired hippies, bohemian life style, free love, tie-dyed shirts and polyester bell bottom pants, rebellion against tradition family values and conservative beliefs, and the preaching of making love/not war.  

“Hair” tells the tale of friends, Claude, Berger and Sheila, and their “tribe” as they struggle to balance their youthful lives, with rebellion against the Vietnamese War and draft conscription.  It is also a reflection of the tidal waves of change that were ripping the country apart.

Even the theatrical staging of the original was a change from tradition with scaffolds to climb, breaking of the third wall with cast members flowing over the apron of the stage to interact with the audience, and dance and sing down the aisles.  This was definitely not “Oklahoma,” “My Fair Lady,” or “Annie Get Your Gun.”

The score is eclectic and electric.  “Aquarius” placed the “world” in a dream-like/flower power state.  “Sodomy” gave words to free love. “Hashish” introduced the topic of drugs.  “Colored Spade,” Black Boys” and “White Boys” put black oppression front and center.  “Hare Krishna” assaulted western organized religion.  “Where Do I Go” showcases the angst of growing up in the era.  “The War” shocks reality, while “Good Morning Sunshine” opens new paths. And, on and on it goes… confronting realities, challenging what was, and making a case for what might be.

The KSU production is brilliantly and intelligently directed by Terri Kent.  It wisely does not try to bring the story to the 2000s, but emphasizes it as a historical piece of reality, complete with its Kent State connection, which is creatively developed with pictures of the campus massacre emblazoned on a parachute, similar to those that were used to drop the US military-forces onto foreign soil.

Choreographer Martin CĂ©spedes has re-imagined the original movements to make the cast into a dancing, singing, story-telling machine.  The performers respond to the staging with enthusiasm and power.  His visual creations fit the music and create the desired effects.  It’s exciting to see dancers on stage, well instructed and inspired.  Bravo!

The vocalizations are outstanding.  The choral sounds are full and engulfing.  Impressive is that the entire cast stayed in character throughout the production, creating the needed reality.  They weren’t acting, they were being.

The cast is universally excellent.  There is not a weak-link.  

 Ben Richardson-PichĂ© (Woof) nails “Sodomy.” The strong voiced Brian Hirsch (Claude) plays “Manchester, England” for appropriate tongue-in-cheek laughs, and textures his role with wise performance choices.  “Eyes Look Your Last,” led by Sami Kennett (Sheila), was transfixing.  Lexie DiLucia (Jeanie), Hallie Walker (Crissy), and Sy Thomas (Dionne) nicely interpret “Air,” singing meanings not just words.  Hallie Walker is “child-like” endearing in her rendition of “Frank Mills,” while Aylah Mendenhall wails with delight throughout. 

Music Director Jennifer Korecki and her orchestra are note perfect, setting the right rock tone.

The technical aspects, especially the visual images and lighting, enhanced the production.

I dare you to sit impassively through the last scene without eyes welling, thinking back to the slaughter of innocents on the KSU campus, and not wanting to rage against war, especially the Vietnam debacle.  

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   This production will make you aware of the changes that took place in this country by the reactions to the Vietnam War, including bringing about the Kent State Massacre, while illustrating that theater can not only entertain, but shine a mirror on history.  See “Hair?”  Absolutely! It is a powerful and well-conceived production!  The Terri Kent-Martin Cespedes combination, as was evidenced in “Man of La Mancha” at Porthouse this summer, sparkles again.  Bravo!

Hair” is scheduled to run at Kent State University through November 10, 2019.  For tickets and information call 330-672-ARTS or go to www.kent.ed/