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Beautiful “Visit of the Group” at the Writers’ Theater


Great Broadway musicals always consist of one of two things: an ensemble under stress (think “Fiddler on the Roof”) or a relationship between two good people dancing on the edge of Eros (think “Once Upon a Time”).

“The Band’s Visit,” David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s charming little musical about a wandering Egyptian police band lost in a drab Israeli town in the middle of the desert, actually deals with these two themes simultaneously. That’s why it works so well. The show is based on an obscure 2007 Israeli film that premiered on Broadway in 2017 and comes with an unusual warmth that is now further enhanced by director Zi Alikhan’s intimate Writers Theater production, which interprets Yazbek’s gorgeous score in surround sound.

There’s another full-circle aspect to this staging: “The Band’s Visit” was actually the Broadway run of director David Cromer, a Skokie native who frequently cut his teeth at this particular theater. You could say that a Chicago, or even specifically Writers Theatre, sensibility is already woven into the material. Cromer has long specialized in shows about people living in quiet desperation, and the two main characters in “The Band’s Visit” certainly fall into that category. The group’s leader, Tewfiq (Rom Barkhordar, does the best job I’ve ever seen him do) tries to pass the time until he and his men get out of there, and Dina (Sophie Madorsky), a local woman, comes running. It’s a sad cafe, and for a moment she wonders if this Tevfik guy in a Sergeant Biber costume is suitable for her distress.

I think there’s something in Moses’ book, whether set at Bet Hatikvah or in Highland Park, that speaks to the persistent difficulties of relationships later in life—the inevitable intrusion of past experiences, the possible presence of previous losses, the longing for a soulmate that might have happened years ago. The feeling that it might work, but how now? The secret sauce here is a kind of wistful passion, so to speak, as reflected in music filled with longing. You can hear vitality and hope fighting tooth and nail with submission.

And it must be said that a stereo in Israel brings to mind the events of last autumn, as does the arrival of the Egyptians. Egypt has become a mysterious presence in the current Middle East crisis, and “The Group’s Visit” explores its role in the cultural memory of this country, particularly the Hollywood diaspora. But this series actually focuses on how ordinary people can overcome these divisions with open-heartedness. This isn’t a story about war, it’s about the human need for connection; This isn’t just the case with the lead couple, Telephone Guy (Harper Caruso), who we see longing for a phone call, Haled (Armand Akbari), whose suave skills with women mask his loneliness, and Egyptian musician Simon (Jonathan Shaboo), who finds himself stuck trying to complete a concerto.

Madorsky sings the difficult lead role extremely well and is a dynamic presence; Which reminds you of what I think Moses was getting at: great people can get stuck. That, of course, is the message of “Once,” another small musical that Writers staged with similar success last year and has clearly learned from its experience: “The Band’s Visit” is designed here to be gripping. Like on Broadway, where I admire this showThe cast plays the score and its unusual instrumentation (at least by Broadway standards), but at Writers they are able to musically envelop the audience in a way not possible in a traditional proscenium theatre.

You may have seen “The Group’s Visit” When you visited here in 2019. I think this staging (and this fine cast) adds a lot to the piece and deserves another look, especially if you’re a fan of what Yazbek has accomplished here musically.

It leaves you wanting more in 90 minutes. Convenient enough.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.


Review: “The Group’s Visit” (4 stars)

When: until March 17

Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Working time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Tickets: $35-$90 at 847-242-6000 and www.writerstheatre.org


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