ASU Gammage Presents National Band Visit Tour

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We are delighted to once again welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to the BroadwayWorld pages. ~ as always, showcasing his distinctive, balanced, and intelligent perspective on acting. In this case, it highlights the National Tour of GROUP VISIT.

Here Now ~ From David Appleford’s keyboard:

It begins with the following title projected on a screen: “Not so long ago, a group of musicians came from Egypt to Israel. You probably haven’t heard of it. It wasn’t very important.

If you look at life from the grand perspective of history and its effect on world events, then yes, the titles are correct; that night the band came to town really wasn’t important. But look closer and you’ll suddenly see that the characters, who have almost nothing in common culturally, realize that they share the same emotions – felt desires; hopes that are not always expressed; shared dreams; and perpetually experienced frustrations. And it’s all expressed in a calm, unassuming way that practically charms the audience into engaging fully.

The National Touring Production of GROUP VISITnow play ASU Gammaing in Tempe until February 13, may be a small and humble story of a group of musicians from another country stranded overnight in the middle of nowhere, but it’s really about friendship, loneliness and wasted opportunities; the characters discover how similar they really are, and do so in a deeply touching yet witty and often very amusing way.

Lasting 100 minutes, without intermission, GROUP VISIT is perhaps the most successful Broadway musical that many may never have heard of. Along with receiving nearly unified critical acclaim when it first opened, at the 72nd Tony Awards in 2018, the show was nominated for 11 awards and won 10, including Best Musical.

Based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name and following the same story arc, GROUP VISIT was held in 1996. After receiving an invitation from a local Arab cultural organization in Israel to play at a concert in nearby Petah Tikvah, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrived in Tel Aviv, in Israel, one day before the performance. Clearly traveling on a shoestring budget, the band took the bus from the airport, but due to accents and poor pronunciation at the ticket office, the musicians did not arrive in Petah Tikvah but in the considerably smaller town and sorry about Bet Hatikva. With no more buses scheduled for the day, the men of the Egyptian Police Orchestra are forced to spend the night in the wrong place and nowhere to stay. With unexpected generosity, the owner of the local cafe invites everyone to a place for the night.

What follows isn’t so much a series of conflicts or comedic situations that the characters will have to overcome before the party departs. Rather, it’s a calm, quiet, out-of-water story from a book by Itamar Moses that tells of unexpected hospitality; people from totally different backgrounds forging a connection in unexpected ways.

There are individual situations – a lovesick young man guards the only phone booth in town in the hope that his girlfriend will call; one of the band members stays at a family home and connects with the stepfather through a story about how music was the foundation that held their marriage together; another member of the band goes to the local ice rink and helps a local boy finally kiss his crush – but the focus of this tender musical is the relationship between bandleader Tewfiq (a superb and understated performance by Sasson Gabay, originating the role in the 2007 film) and local cafe owner Dina (usually played on tour by Janet Dacal, but on opening night in Tempe by understudy Hannah Shankman who delivered an outstanding performance ).

Once you realize where the city is located and what cultures are suddenly brought together, you can’t help but be constantly aware of the Arab-Israeli tensions that are set to escalate in the background. After all, it is on this very land that deadly conflicts have taken place before. Yet there they are, Egyptian band leader and Israeli cafe owner, sitting together, drinking coffee, exchanging pleasantries and discovering how much they love each other. But there’s more going on than a surface look doesn’t always reveal.

The exchange of cultures can often lead to a much deeper understanding between people. If the leader of the Tewfiq group and the owner of the cafe Dina were from the same culture, they might have little interest in each other. He might have seen her as perhaps a bit too open and morally cheeky; she might find him too stiff and reserved while looking a little awkward in his old powder blue Sgt. Pepper style uniform. But while sharing food and time at the table, both sides ultimately see each other for who they are, vulnerable and struggling people, while overcoming ethnic barriers at the same time.

Director David Cromer coordinates movement and scene changes in a perfectly fluid fashion, created mostly on a revolving stage as characters move in and out of each other’s lives. David Yazbek’s score can often be as melodic and certainly as charming as the characters who sing it, though nothing quite reaches the emotional heights of the final song, Answer me, manages to climb. With all the townspeople together – their lives and desires already on display – despite all their differences, everyone comes together to sing as one with a single, soaring, emotionally charged voice. As night slowly turns into day, you feel like they are doing it for the very first time.

The show’s sense of intimacy may be lost for some in ASU Gammage’s vast auditorium. There is an awareness of the melancholy felt by all the characters that permeates throughout the production, emanating from the performers’ subtle expressions, though the effect of this almost tangible feeling will be most effectively felt by those closest to the stage. who can see the detail of a pained expression of the performer rather than those seated further away.

If you’ve seen the movie, you might remember that some of the characters were drawn a bit too broadly, yet here on stage, without significant changes, they look perfectly natural. The same goes for humor. A character’s reactions to something spoken are often expressed with a slow, silent burn. For some accustomed to a larger, more direct, back-of-the-house style of comedy, patience is required, but it is this very tender, quietly paced, understated style that is generally not experienced in a live performance, which makes GROUP VISIT a true delight.

Photo credit to Matthew Murphy

GROUP VISIT until February 13 on: Gammage ASU ~ https://www.asugammage.com/~ 1200 S. Forest Ave, Tempe, AZ~ 480-965-3434

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