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The Band’s Visit
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
The Fox Theatre
February 25, 2020

Sasson Gabay, Janet Dacal
Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
The Band’s Visit North American Tour

The Band’s Visit is a Tony-Winning musical that’s more about characters and atmosphere than plot. That’s a good thing, in this case, since the characters are so well-drawn and the atmosphere is haunting and memorable. Currently on tour at the Fox, this production boasts an excellent cast and a stunning sense of musicality to underscore these characters’ simple but profound stories.

It’s not a long play, running at 90 minutes with no intermission, and the setup is simple. An Egyptian police band has arrived in Israel to perform a concert, having been invited to appear at the opening of a cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. There’s a misunderstanding at the bus station, however, and the band ends up in the small, out-of-the-way town of Bet Hatikva. Once the mistake is realized, band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) and his band are informed that the next bus arrives the following day, so they find themselves unexpectedly spending the night in the town, making the acquaintance of local restaurant owner Dina (Janet Dacal) and her employees Itzik (Pomme Koch) and Papi (played at the performance I saw by standby Danny Burgos). The various band members split up and spend the evening with the locals. Tewfiq and the suave Haled (Joe Joseph) stay with Dina, and Dina shows Tewfiq the town while Haled tags along with Papi and his friend on a double date, discovering that Papi is insecure and doesn’t know how to connect with his date. Clarinetist and composer Simon (James Rana) stays with Itzik’s family, forming a bond and finding himself helping in an unexpected way. Dina and Tewfiq share a bond and an attraction, but Tewfiq is haunted by past regrets. Meanwhile, the ever-persistent “Telephone Guy” (Mike Cefalo) waits by a payphone hour after hour for his long-absent girlfriend to call. This is more a series of episodes with a common theme than one cohesive story, and ultimately there is a message of persistence and hope in the midst of regret and despair, as well as finding common bonds among people from different cultures. There’s a memorable score by David Yazbek with standout songs like “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different” for Dina, and “Haled’s Song of Love” as well as the emotive “Answer Me” and more, played with heartrending beauty by the onstage band conducted by Adrian Ries.

The production values here are impressive, especially considering this is a tour, with detailed, fluidly-moving set by Scott Pask that represents all the various locations in the town and uses the stage’s turntable particularly well. There’s also evocative lighting by Tyler Micoleau that further sets and maintains the show’s lyrical tone and mood. Also excellent are the detailed costumes by Sarah Laux that help bring these characters to life along with the stunning performances.

As for those performances, the entire ensemble is strong here, with superb voices and strong presence. The heart of the show is the connection between Dacal’s bold Dina and Gabay’s soft-spoken Tewfiq, and both performers are stunning in their portrayals and in their chemistry. Other standouts include Joseph as the smooth-voiced ladies’ man Haled, Burgos as the anxious Papi, and the clear-voiced Koch as Itzik, who gets a poignant moment with “Itzik’s Lullabye”. Cefalo is also memorable as the determined Telephone Guy. The whole cast is strong, with a strong sense of cohesive energy and determination, singing the score well and bringing out the emotion of the memorable score.

Overall, The Band’s Visit is about little moments that turn out to be bigger than expected. It’s a “little” show in some ways, with a short run time and a relatively small cast, but it’s got a big heart and sense of musicality that shines through even beyond the curtain call. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking production.

The North American tour of The Band’s Visit is running at the Fox Theatre until March 8, 2020

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The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 9, 2015

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty is the closing production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2015 season. I had never seen this show before, or the film on which it is based. For the most part, I find it a pleasant surprise.  Everyone knows it as that show about male strippers, but even more than that it’s a celebration of friendship, family, and determination. With a strong, likable cast and the impressive production values that STAGES is known for, this proves to be an entertaining, worthwhile production.

Adapted from the popular British film, the musical version of The Full Monty moves the setting from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York in the late 1990’s. The story follows Jerry Lukowski (Brent Michael Diroma) and his best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Todd A. Horman), who have lost their jobs when a local steel mill shut down. Jerry, a divorced father of 14-year-old Nathan (Cole Hoefferle), needs a job so he can keep up child support payments and maintain joint custody of his son. Dave has self-image issues based on being out of a job and being overweight, causing him to neglect his loving wife Georgie (Lindsie Vanwinkle). After noticing the popularity of a local “women only” strip club, Jerry gets the idea to form a group to perform a one-night-only act in order to make the money he needs. Along the way, they meet other down-on-their-luck guys, like the fastidious Harold (James Ludwig), who takes dance classes with his materialistic but loving wife Vicki (Julie Cardia) and agrees to become their choreographer. There’s also Noah “Horse” Simmons (Milton Craig Neal), who is older and has a bad hip, but is a great dancer, although he struggles with public perceptions demonstrated in his song “Big Black Man.” Rounding out the group are the shy young Malcolm (Erik Keiser), who lives with his elderly mother and struggles to find a purpose in life, and the amiable and charming but not too bright Ethan (Adam Shonkwiler), who forms a close bond with Malcolm. A lot happens through the course of this show, with the grand finale strip performance being the ultimate goal, although what’s really important is the relationships–friendships and romances–that are formed and rebuilt.

For the most part, this is a highly entertaining show. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of “empowerment through stripping”, but that’s not all this show is about. It’s about friends and family, and honesty and integrity. It’s populated with likable characters, although there are some stereotypes that can be uncomfortable, and most of the songs are not particularly memorable, with some truly clunky lyrics. The closing number “Let It Go” (no, not that one) is catchy enough, though, and there’s a memorable moment for Keiser and Shonkwiler in “You Walk With Me”, although none of these songs is likely to become a classic. Still, there’s great dancing, choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf, and some truly poignant moments as well some excellent comedy.

The heart of this show is its characters, and the actors are well-cast.  Diroma makes a convincing down-on-his-luck Jerry, although at times he seems a little too clean-cut for the role. He’s got a strong voice and good stage presence, though, and great chemistry with the rest of the group of guys, especially Horman’s glum but sweet Dave.  The real standouts in the cast for me, though, are Ludwig and Cardia as Harold and Vicki, a loving couple who have to deal with a secret that threatens their relationship. The energy and affection between these two is heartwarming. There’s also local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as the group’s feisty, no-nonsense self-appointed pianist, Jeanette. Neal as Horse shows off great dance and comic ability, and Keiser is particularly winning as the initially depressed Malcolm. Shonkwiler as Ethan gives a strong performance as well, particularly in his scenes with Keiser.

In terms of production values, this show delivers what STAGES is known for–excellence and professionalism. The set, by James Wolk, is appropriately evocative of a working class Buffalo environment. The costumes, by Garth Dunbar, are suitably late 90’s styled, colorful, and character-appropriate. There’s also outstanding lighting, designed by Matthew McCarthy, that lends gritty realism to some scenes and showbiz glitz to the strip club scenes.

Although I have some issues with the writing of this show, for the most part it does what it intends to do: entertain. With a very strong cast of characters and top-notch production values, The Full Monty is a crowd pleasing closer to STAGES’ season. It’s a fun show with a lot of heart.

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty from STAGES St. Louis runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 4, 2015

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