Meanwhile at the Ed Mirvish Theatre…

  October 10, 2019  

The Band’s Visit has blown into Toronto like the jasmine scented wind that is a recurring image throughout the show.

The show that starts with the words: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t that important.” The self-deprecating humour of this sets the tone for the entire show.

It also is a clever way of letting the audience know they are not going to experience Mission Impossible levels of drama and suspense.

But drama and suspense is indeed what we are given – albeit in a subtle, nuanced, sophisticated and mindful way that matches the pace of life in the small, desert town the story takes place. Purposely, the story unfolds in a languid way, each and every movement of the cast, lighting cue, even set changes is executed in a deliberately measured means. The director is telling us, “Pay attention here. Nothing is extraneous to the telling of this story.”

I had the opportunity to sit down with the stars of The Band’s Visit to talk about what makes the show meaningful.

Chilina Kennedy, who plays Dina, is bubbly and energetic; a marked difference from her onstage character. Sasson Gabay who reprises the role of Tewfiq from the 2007 film, is more reserved- not unlike his onstage counterpart. While he may be more subdued than Kennedy they are both passionate about the production.

“It crosses borders and periods of time because it is talking about connections between people. And the similarity between people.” Gabay said.

This sentiment was echoed by Kennedy, “each one of these characters are changed from the beginning of the show until the end. They all go on a journey and they’re changed by the people who are on the other side. The Israelis are changed by the Egyptians and all of the Egyptians are changed by the Israelis. For the better. And I think that we need that message now more than ever.”

It is unique to look at these groups of people without focusing on the conflict and politics that have dominated any discussion of the Middle East. This show shifts the spotlight onto their shared humanity. David Yazbek’s score is the way these characters are able to get past what separates them.

“In the show music is the third language,” Kennedy said.

In an interview with David Yazbek he said “the story attracted me from the beginning because it’s about the underlying ocean that connects everybody and everything. To me, the most potent metaphor for that is music.” The score reinforces the culture clash by bringing together disparate musical styles and blending them seamlessly. Traditional Musical Theatre numbers sit comfortably beside Arabic music and Jazz to create a smooth and transcendent experience.

The score “gives the story another degree,” Gabay said. “Music is such a fundamental tool of communication between people,” Gabay said. “Everyone finds that music is something that touches, instinctively, the heart, the mind, the emotion. To penetrate under your skin, under your feelings and you find yourself carried by music.”

As an Israeli, Gabay was familiar with the style of the Arabic music that is featured in the show, but for Kennedy it represented a new challenge. “I took some voice lessons and just remembered the way that I used to sing and got into some different tones that I wouldn’t have used for other parts that I’ve played,” she said. “It’s an entirely different spice.”

Kennedy went on to shared that her four-year-old son is also enthralled by the music. It has inspired him to take lessons on the darbuka (an Arabic drum that features heavily -and impressively- in the show). “It touches a part of him that he’s not even- I don’t even think he understands what it is, he’s just drawn to it,” she said.

I haven’t started Oud lessons (the oud is the 11-stringed instrument that somewhat resembles an intricately carved mandolin) but I agree that there is something in the music that has had a lasting impact on me. At once familiar and foreign, just like the characters discover. We’re not so different after all!