Crowds filed into the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph St.) Sept. 4 for the third performance of “The Band’s Visit,” which is making a stop in Chicago for its national tour. The winner of 10 Tony Awards, the musical transported the audience to the fictional Israeli town of Bet Hatikva for a night of dreamy Arabic music, authentic instrumentation and goosebump-inducing ballads.
“The Band’s Visit,” written by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 movie of the same name. The production began as the lights dimmed and white words projected on a black screen reading, “Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
The screen rose to reveal the eight musicians at the bus station trying to get tickets to the Israeli city of Petah Tikva. In a hilarious misunderstanding caused by an Egyptian accent, the group mistakenly winds up in the middle-of-nowhere town known as Bet Hatikva.
With no hotels available and no buses running till morning, the group must seek refuge in the homes of the Israeli townspeople. A single night’s story is packed into 90 minutes with no intermission as to not interrupt the dreamlike flow of the narrative.
The show is revered for its use of authentic Arabic instruments, and for good reason. Contrary to most Broadway musicals, onstage actors actually play their instruments, which include the guitar-esque oud, the tambourine-like riq and a darbuka, otherwise known as a goblet drum.
From a payphone to a jukebox, every aspect of the set communicated a town behind on the times. The production featured set pieces resembling crumbling homes and rundown establishments, letting the cast compensate with their developed and layered characters.
Joe Joseph shined under the blue hues of low-lit lighting as the flirty albeit somewhat halfwitted Haled. Joseph caught audiences off guard when he serenaded rollerblading couples with “Haled’s Song About Love” with a voice smooth as glass and sultry as perfume.
Chilina Kennedy entranced the crowd as Dina, whose dark lips, intense rouge and thick black hair immediately cemented her as a femme fatale with a twist. Instead of heartbreaking, Dina often finds her heart broken, whether it’s by the husband who left her or the married man with whom she’s been sleeping.
Kennedy made the audience’s hearts ache for Dina. She captured the desolation of someone who used to be free, wild and in love, but now submits to the confines of waitress work that leaves her socially immobile in a town with nothing for her.
The allure of Dina’s character was in part due to Kennedy’s robust voice — she sang the haunting “Omar Sharif” with a poignant mix of pain, nostalgia and wanting, leaving listeners mystified.
While plenty of songs — including “Waiting” and “Answer Me” — illustrated the melancholic attitudes of the townspeople who have no choice but to remain in the beaten-down Bet Hatikva, their coping methods were reflected in the balance of humorous songs, such as “Welcome to Nowhere” and “Papi Hears the Ocean.”
“The Band’s Visit” warranted a standing ovation from the moment the stage lights went out, and that’s exactly what it was met with. Crowds leapt to their feet in applause as the cast bowed in unison.
While “The Band’s Visit” might not have the fan following of “Wicked” or the modern-day political consequences of “Hamilton,” it takes audiences on a one-night tour into the lives of people halfway across the world.
“The Band’s Visit” is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sept. 15 and tickets can be purchased at the box office or online at www.thebandsvisitmusical.com.