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‘The Band’s Visit’ offers message of shared humanity

Every actor’s goal is to understand the character he or she plays. But from his very first introduction to Tewfiq, his character in “The Band’s Visit,” Sasson Gabay instinctively understood the leader of the police ceremonial orchestra from Egypt who, with his colleagues, makes an unplanned overnight visit to a small Israeli town.

The award-winning Israeli actor originated the role of Tewfiq in the nonmusical film version of “The Band’s Visit,” which was the basis for a subsequent stage musical adaption that won 10 Tony awards, including the 2018 award for Best Musical, as well as a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.

That musical retelling of the story about finding human connection in unexpected circumstances comes to The Smith Center Feb. 15-20. Tickets start at $30 (thesmithcenter.com).

The story revolves around a troupe of police orchestra members who, because of a verbal mispronunciation, arrive unexpectedly in a small, remote desert town in Israel. Temporarily stranded, they’re invited to stay with townspeople.

“They accept this kind offer,” Gabay says, and the story explores “the different interactions between people.”

At its heart, “The Band’s Visit” is about human connection. “Everybody is learning something,” Gabay says, as band members and townspeople “open themselves to the other.

“This is the theme of the film, the connection between (the cafe owner) played by Janet Dacal, who is wonderful, and Tewfiq, played by me, and all the other characters. Each one meets locals and learn about each other and learns something about themselves.

“Sometimes when meeting a stranger you are more open to them than people you see every day. You don’t have to hide things or worry about how people will look at you.”

Gabay originated the the role of Tewfiq in the 2007 non-musical film version of “The Band’s Visit.” In 2018, after the film’s adaptation into a stage musical, he returned to the character on Broadway. He now reprises the role in the production’s touring company. Gabay says he understood Tewfiq immediately after being asked to read a description of him and a synopsis of the movie script.

“I said, “I don’t mind doing an audition, but I know this man. I feel him,’ ” Gabay says. “I know him. I’m very connected to him.” Tewfiq has “some contradiction. He’s rigid and formal (outside) but inside he’s an artist. He’s a musician, a conductor. I like this contradiction between his facade he shows to the outside and what he’s got inside,” Gabay says.

“Also, he’s dealing with some tragedy in the past with his family, so he protects himself with formality. I like the contradiction between his formality, or pretended formality, and the delicate soul that hides inside.”

Gabay recalls shooting the film in 2007. It was “this low-budget film we shot in 21 days in a very remote town” near Tel Aviv, he says. “All of us understood we had something really special on our hands, a very modest, low-key, very simple film and a plot that penetrates in the heart of the audience.”

The film won several awards. Gabay remembers that, when he was asked by producer Orin Wolf what he thought about adapting it into a musical, “it looked to me to be a very strange idea, to take a very simple story and make a musical out of it.”

But, he says, “I think they made such a great job transferring this modest, low-key film into a gentle and modest musical which people enjoy and feel touched by.”

The show premiered off-Broadway in 2016 with Tony Shalhoub as Tewfiq and went on to a successful run on Broadway.

“Then after about six months, the producer asked me if I’d like to take over for Tony Shalhoub, who had to leave. I had to finish my own theater commitments in Tel Aviv and moved for a year to New York with my family, and it really was one of the big peaks of my career. Every actor dreams about performing on Broadway, let alone an actor from Israel. I spent a wonderful year in New York.”

Moving from film to theater and from drama to musical wasn’t difficult for Gabay, whose credits include work in a variety of projects ranging from comedy to drama and from live theater to film and television.

“All my life I was basically a theater actor,” he says. “I was lucky to be working all the time doing things that I loved, liked and appreciated. At the same time I worked in a lot of TV and film. I like both media a lot.

“I need a live connection to the audiences, the process (that) you’re going through a journey of two hours physically, with your body, and emotionally, and to have an audience sitting there and connected to you. On the other hand, I like film and TV. You can do more delicate things with more emotion. Luckily, I’ve been doing both.”

Gabay is excited about returning to a favorite character in a play that “has turned out to be one of the major pillars of my career. I find myself for the third year, off and on, performing this play, this part, and it’s very rewarding.

“First, it’s the way I make my living. But to see new audiences enjoying this modest film, this very modest play (with) no car accidents, no girls (or) that razzle-dazzle musical, I appreciate the part because it’s different and something unique.”

“This musical is very entertaining, very fun,” Gabay says. David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics, “combined (Arabic) music with American jazz. It’s a really wonderful mixture. We speak Hebrew, English and Arabic. So it’s not a typical Broadway musical.”

Gabay hopes audiences will take away from “The Band’s Visit” the play’s simple but powerful message about shared humanity “and our need for each other. We are all so much alike and need each other in so many ways.”

Contact John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. or 702-383-0280

Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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