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Israeli film star leads “different kind of musical” into Norfolk

By Jim Roberts

“Hamilton” is the “talk of the town” for Broadway In Norfolk’s 2019-2020 season, but “The Band’s Visit” was almost as successful—albeit with less fanfare. In fact, “The Band’s Visit” won 10 Tony Awards in 2018—just one less than “Hamilton” two years prior—including Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Direction, Best Book and Best Original Score. Sasson Gabai, the star of the 2007 film that inspired the musical, succeeded Tony Shalhoub in the lead role on Broadway and continues on the national tour. He recently spoke to Veer Magazine during the show’s stop in Toronto. Here are a few highlights from the conversation.

On the show’s premise …

“It’s about a group of Egyptian musicians—a police orchestra from Alexandria—coming to visit Israel to perform in a big city called Petah Tikvah. But because of mispronunciation, they end up in Bet Hatikva, which is a very small and remote town in the south of Israel. So they stop there for the night, and the whole story is this night that the locals host this orchestra and the dynamic between the characters in the room. Each one of them—the orchestra and the locals—learn something about themselves, about life, about the need of connections and the same basic human needs that we all have.”

On joining the tour …

“Fortunately, I had a very good career in Israel, but I didn’t dream of coming to the mecca of musical—to Broadway in New York—to do it. And it was really a big thrill for me. I had a wonderful, exciting year on Broadway. And since I love this part, and I love this musical, and I’ve been offered to do the tour, and also the same time see America from a different angle, I thought to myself: It’s a life opportunity to do it, which we never know if it will repeat itself. So I decided that I can’t refuse such an offer, and I am doing it gladly.” 

On the differences between the film and the musical …

“This is the same story. It’s the same characters, the same parts. The main different thing is that the wonderful David Yazbek, the composer, added the songs to the play. I think we have at least 10 to 15 beautiful songs, the combination of Middle Eastern music and American jazz music. … Of course, when you’re on stage, it’s different than when you’re in front of the camera. This is what I like most is the immediate and direct contact between you and the audience. It’s up to you; nobody can interfere with that. So what you have to give, you give it directly to the audience. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to do a lot of films in Israel, TV series in Israel—sometimes abroad—but all of my life, I was involved in theater, and I see myself first of all as theater actor. I feel that I need this contact with the audience, and I think I need it for my for the way I express myself and for my health, for my blood circulation, for my imagination, for my creativity.”

On singing in the show …

“I would love to sing even more, but I have one song without orchestra and one duet with Chilina Kennedy, who has done the last four years the role of Carole King on Broadway. I really enjoy so much working with her. She’s a wonderful partner, a wonderful person and a wonderful singer. I have scenes with her that I just sit and listen to her singing, and I’m amazed every time. She’s full of life and full of truth. I’m enjoying so much. I feel fortunate working with her.”

On working with his son, Adam Gabay …

“He’s doing Papi wonderfully. It’s really a dream for any father to play on the same stage with his son. My favorite part in the in the play is to stand backstage and see him doing his solo or doing his scenes on stage. … He’s doing very well now in an HBO TV series called ‘Our Boys.’ It’s a really dramatic and painful series, but he’s doing very different part and different role than he’s doing here, and I’m proud to say that he is wonderful in both projects.”

On coming to Norfolk…

“I’ve been as a visitor to New York, to Boston, to the west coast and Los Angeles, et cetera, but I haven’t been to Norfolk, Virginia, and not to many other places. Some of them I only heard of, and some of them are brand new to me—the names I didn’t know. I heard about Norfolk, Virginia, but I’m looking forward to be there and to meet the place and the audience, of course.”

On Norfolk audiences subscribing to see “Hamilton” …

“I think they will win twice seeing ‘Hamilton’ and seeing ‘The Band’s Visit.’ ‘The Band’s Visit’ is not typical Broadway musical, and also ‘Hamilton’ is not a typical Broadway musical. It’s got a new approach, a new concept that when I saw it, I was really surprised and amazed. But really, ‘The Band’s Visit’ is altogether different kind of musical. It’s more a play with songs. With ‘Hamilton,’ you’re swept away by the music, by the dance, by the effect. ‘The Band’s Visit’ penetrates slowly. You know, drop after drop into your heart. It fills your heart. It’s more comforting. It’s going to the heart and to the brain and less to the effect. I think the person who bought the tickets also for ‘Hamilton’ and ‘The Band’s Visit’ will experience two different kinds of shows and experiments, but I’m sure both of them will enrich for certain.”

Closing thoughts …

 “The best thing to do is to come to see it and to sit and relax, open your heart and open your eyes and ears and let this play come to you. And I’m sure you’ll leave the theater differently from the way you enter into it. You know, a lot of musicals are very effective and very entertaining, and once you leave the theater, you very quickly forget about them. But this musical, I’m sure things will stay in the heart and the mind of the audience.”

WANT TO GO

“The Band’s Visit”

October 29 through November 3

Chrysler Hall

www.sevenvenues.com