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Exquisite ‘The Band’s Visit’ is about things that matter

ALSO: “Kolyada: Winter Songs from the Black Sea” at the Cedar; 27th Annual Women’s Art Festival; and more.

Chilina Kennedy and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit.”
Chilina Kennedy and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy

A Broadway musical that won 10 Tonys and the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, “The Band’s Visit” was not what we expected. There’s singing, but little dancing. No bright lights or big production numbers. (Well, one.) More play-with-music than musical, this is a small, quiet story that takes place over a single evening in the middle of nowhere, and nothing much happens.

How did it win so many Tonys, including the Big Six – Best Musical, Book, Score, Actor, Actress and Direction? By being about things that matter: hope, love, charity and having an open heart. Without hitting you over the head, resorting to clichés or being predictable.

Written by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, this is also the first Broadway musical to play a Tiny Desk Concert. Yazbek, whose previous Broadway credits include “Tootsie,” “The Full Monty” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” has written a moody, beautiful Middle Eastern-flavored score with smart, witty lyrics, memorable tunes and moments of poetry. “Honey in my ear, spice in my mouth,” to quote from one of the songs.

“The Band’s Visit” begins with these words projected on a screen: “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.”

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We meet the musicians in a bus station in Tel Aviv. It’s 1996. Led by Col. Tewfiq, dressed in powder-blue “Sgt. Pepper”-style uniforms, the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra are en route to the bustling city of Petah Tikvah to play a concert. But Haled, the band member who buys the bus ticket, has a heavy Egyptian accent and flirts with the ticket agent. (His favorite pick-up line: “Do you like Chet Baker?”) She mistakes his P for a B, and the band ends up in the tiny, isolated desert town of Bet Hatikva.

They meet Dina, the owner of the only café in town, and Papi and Itzik, two café workers. Dina tells them there won’t be another bus until the next day, offers to feed them and arranges places for them to stay the night.

Slowly, like petals unfolding, Egyptians and Israelis who were strangers hours earlier reveal their stories to each other and in ways large and small, change each other’s lives. Haled helps anxiety-ridden Papi connect with a girlfriend. Band member Simon soothes Itzik’s infant son to sleep and helps him reconcile with his wife. Itzik helps Simon finish a concerto he’s been unable to complete. Politics and religion never come up.

Dina and Tewfiq have dinner together, walk through the town and visit the “park” – a solitary bench. He’s burdened by private grief. She longs for something in her life to change. In any other musical, sparks would fly. Here, they drift up slowly into the air.

The sand-colored set is on a turntable that changes scenes and doubles as a punchline to words from one of the songs: “Sometimes it feels like we’re moving in a circle/Around and around with the same scenery going by.” The lighting is subtle. Delicate projections appear and disappear.

The touring company is wonderful. Chilina Kennedy is Dina, lately Carole King in the epic run of “Beautiful.” Israeli film star Sasson Gabay is Tewfiq; on Tuesday, his role was played by James Rana, a member of the original Broadway cast. Most of the band members are musicians in real life, so they’re really playing their instruments, which adds to the enchantment.

Except for the turntable, “The Band’s Visit” is almost a minimalist musical. Instead of demanding your attention, it whispers in your ear. Rather than turn up the volume, it offers moments of silence. It’s one of the most exquisite and moving shows we’ve ever seen. We’re reminded of Theater Latte Da’s “All Is Calm” and the Moving Company’s “Speechless.” Shows, like this one, we’ll never forget.

“The Band’s Visit” continues at the Orpheum through Sunday, Dec. 15. FMI and tickets ($40-136). Run time about 100 minutes, with no intermission.

The picks

Tonight at the Milkweed Building: David Shove Midstream Reading Series. Hosted by Richard Terrill, tonight’s lineup of original poems read and performed by their creators will include Max Garland (winner of the Brittingham Poetry Prize, former poet laureate of Wisconsin), Bronson Lemer (“The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq”), Anna George Meek (Brittingham Poetry Prize, Richard Snyder Prize), and Leslie Adrienne Miller, whose six books of poetry have been published by Graywolf and Carnegie Mellon University Press. At the corner of 39th and (3820) East Lake, upstairs. Entrance just west of Milkweed, the former Blue Moon coffee house. 7:30-8:30 p.m. Free.

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Saturday and Sunday at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “Ronia: The Robber’s Daughter.” Based on the children’s fantasy book by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, which has been translated into dozens of languages, this hit 1984 Swedish film is a holiday tradition for many families. It follows the adventures of a robber’s daughter who becomes friends with another robber’s son, despite the fact that their fathers are sworn enemies. The story has also been made into musicals, stage plays, and an animated TV series. The Film Society will screen a restored and remastered digital DCP print from the Swedish Film Institute. FMI, times and tickets. Also Dec. 21-24.

Handmade mittens by Diane Beutz featured at the 27th Annual Women’s Art Festival.
Courtesy of the artist
Handmade mittens by Diane Beutz featured at the 27th Annual Women’s Art Festival.
Saturday at the Colin Powell Center: 27th Annual Women’s Art Festival. This nonjuried show began in the early 1990s at Spirit of the Lakes church, spent nine years at the Midtown YWCA and has settled into the Colin Powell, with lots of space and free covered parking in the Wells Fargo ramp a block away. More than 130 women will show and sell their work in a variety of media, from paintings to pottery, body care products to jewelry. There will be live music by women performers throughout the day, and food and beverages available from a women-owned coffee shop. 2924 4th Ave. S., Minneapolis. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. FMI. Free.

Saturday at the Loft: “If: A Very Star Wars Cabaret.” Some of the Loft’s programming is organized by theme. This fall’s theme is “If,” an invitation to explore speculative work. The Skywalker Saga of “Star Wars” ends this winter (sniff, sniff), an excuse for writers and thinkers who are also fans to share creative work involving the blockbuster series. Like the Mos Eisley Cantina in Episode IV, the Cabaret will feature an eclectic bunch: Lao American writer Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay; Minnesota Book Award-winning author Shannon Gibney (“See No Color,” “Dream Country”); Matthew Kessen (“Reverend Matt’s Monster Science”); Latinx puppeteer and prose writer Luis Lopez; and author Jodi Byrd (“Transit of Empire”), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. 7-8:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10/$5 member).

Holiday pick: Not your same-old holiday music

Nomadi is one of the ensembles performing at “Kolyada: Winter Songs from the Black Sea.”
Courtesy of the artists
Nomadi is one of the ensembles performing at “Kolyada: Winter Songs from the Black Sea.”
On Saturday, a supergroup of local ensembles and artists will gather at the Cedar for something new. “Kolyada: Winter Songs from the Black Sea” will feature Mila Vocal Ensemble, Orkestar Bez Ime, Nomadi and percussionist Peter O’Gorman, performing a cappella and accompanied songs from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Turkey and the Republic of Georgia. Mila recently returned from the Republic of Georgia; O’Gorman has written new music for the toaca, an instrument used by Orthodox priests to call parishioners to worship. This is not something you can pick up at Schmitt Music, so O’Gorman built his own. The groups will perform separately and together, sometimes moving through the audience like carolers. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets.