Review by David Ferguson
“Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.” This memorable line works not only for the story, but also holds true as a review of the stage production. When we think of Tony Award winning musicals, we tend to think big and loud, with elaborate and ostentatious set design. Full disclosure: In 2008, I became a fan of writer-director Eran Kolirin’s film version, and in 2017 the stage musical version, with a script Itamar Moses adapted (from Kolirin’s screenplay) and music from David Yazbek moved to Broadway. It won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and then won a Grammy for Best Theatre Musical Album. So yes, that’s one of the beautiful things we didn’t expect.
When the lights first come up, it’s 1996 and we see the Alexandra Ceremonial Police Orchestra waiting apprehensively at the bus station for a ride that is apparently not coming. They have arrived in Israel from Egypt, after being invited to play at the Grand Opening of the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tivka. Thanks to the language barrier, they instead find their way to Bet Hativka … “with a B” instead of “with a P”. A tiny desert town in Israel offers up only confusing looks from the locals to go with welcome hospitality. Dina, the café owner, arranges a place for each of the band members to sleep that night, and her own personal guest is Tewfiq, the band’s dignified leader.
Janet Dacal has taken over the role of Dina from Katrina Lenk (Broadway) and Chilina Kennedy (first national tour). It’s a challenging character because Dina is a tough-talking local who still harbors hope of a fulfilling relationship. In other words, her hard shell protects the warm and open heart of a romantic. Additionally, Dina is responsible for bringing energy and spirit to the stage as most of her scenes are with Tewfiq, one of the more reserved stage characters you’ve seen. Sasson Gabay has reprised his excellent silver screen role as Tewfiq (played by Tony Shalhoub on Broadway), and he perfectly embodies a man weighted with an internal burden of grief, as well as the added responsibility of proudly representing his country.
Everything takes place over the course of one night. It’s not so much a story as it is a display of human connection. There is no real clash of cultures. No, these are simply people dealing with the situation. The mundane existence of the small town locals have varying reactions to the strangers wearing powder blue uniforms and toting instruments. Ah yes, the music. Rather than overblown showstoppers, the 12 songs and score coax us through the interactions. Dina’s “Omar Sharif” is not only a catchy tune, but one that bonds her with Tewfiq. “Papi Hears the Ocean” may be the most humorous of the songs, and it’s immediately followed by the touching “Haled’s Song About Love.” Themes of humor (including a running Chet Baker gag) and love run throughout, but keep in mind, this is mostly a subdued, intimate show featuring human moments between characters.
The circular, revolving stage works brilliantly for the simple sets of this simple town. The depth comes from the characters, and sometimes what is implied is more powerful than what is said. The production is from director David Cromer (also from the Broadway run), and the show runs a little more than 90 minutes with no intermission. We are informed twice that the band’s visit wasn’t important, and maybe they are right … this was “Something Different.” In contrast to the tone of the band’s overnight stay, it’s that finale concert that brings the crowd to their feet. We get to see the musicians do what they love. It’s quite a treat.
In Dallas at the Winspear Opera House, the show will have a two-week run with Dallas Summer Musicals (February 4-16, 2020), and then an additional week through AT&T Performing Arts Center (February 18-23, 2020)
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