Kicking off the new year at the Golden Gate Theater is the delayed arrival of The group visit, the touring production of the 2018 Tony Award winner for Best Musical as well as three acting awards and a host of others.
While the Tony Awards sometimes surprise us with unconventional winners, The group visit stands out in a number of ways, having won 10 of the 11 trophies it was nominated for in 2018, despite being a very offbeat, understated and thoroughly modern musical without even a hummable melody. I would say it was perhaps the shrewdest and most original choice of a season of Broadway that was full of pop culture retreads aimed at children – the other nominees for Best Musical that year were mean girls, Frozen, and the although visually stunning and clever Sponge Bob SquarePants musical.
Because during The group visit is delightful in so many ways, it’s certainly a show that’s been lucky enough to make it to Broadway from a home off Broadway thanks to critical acclaim and an excellent book by Itamar Moses based on the 2007 film of the same name. The show unfolds with the same heavy stillness of an indie film, populated by odd characters some of whom only meet for a single scene, or a few short vignettes that add color to the story. And the show’s songs are, for the most part, personal essays or pleas, descriptions of hazy memories, all idiosyncratic and some written in the 24-tone mode of Arabic music that doesn’t always play easily in Western ears. .
In short: barely a shoe in Broadway hits.
The group visit is also, perhaps most importantly, a terrific showcase for actors, and the touring production allows Janet Dacal to shine in the lead role of Dina – the owner of a small cafe in the small desert town of Beit Hatikva , where a ceremonial orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt arrives by mistake and gets stuck for the night.
The central misunderstanding that leads to the band’s arrival serves as the perfect metaphor for the often awkward collisions of culture and language. The group asks an Israeli ticket seller for bus tickets to the historic city of Petah Tikva, where they are to perform the next day for the opening of an Arab cultural center. But they end up – because there is no “p” sound in Arabic and it is often replaced by “b” – in the small village of Beit Hatikva, which sounds exactly the same to their ears. .
Dina and several townspeople set up the group for the night after learning that there were no buses leaving until morning – and there were no hotels here. And what happens are subtle, poignant moments of friendship and warmth between strangers.
Sasson Gabay, an Israeli actor who appeared in the 2007 film, reprises his role in this production as the reserved bandleader Tewfiq – who spends a tame but possibly romantic evening with Dina. Joe Joseph does a marvelous job in the supporting role of Haled, the incorrigible flirt and Chet Baker fan who is responsible for the ticket confusion – and his Chet Baker-imitating rendition of “Haled’s Song About Love” is a highlight.
The group visit remains difficult to summarize or categorize with precision. It’s quiet, it’s melancholic, its moments of redemption are smaller and more subtle than your typical Broadway fare. He shares part of his DNA with Come from afar, another modern show about strangers arriving in a small town in which many songs feel like monologues for a diverse cast of characters. But it’s a play in its own right, specific in each of its quiet plotlines and refreshing in its unconventional character.
And while it doesn’t have a conventional grand finale number or major resolution, the show still manages to have some incredibly emotional musical moments in its final minutes – perhaps most notably with a call-in number after the curtain of the whole band, something that doesn’t happen in the show up until then. For a show that won’t be a crowd pleaser, this is a crowd pleaser moment for sure.
“The Band’s Visit” is playing at the Golden Gate Theater until February 6. Find tickets here.