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NY Theater Reviews

Sasson Gabay and Katrina Lenk/ Ph: Evan Zimmerman

WIN A TONY, LOSE A TONY

By MATT WINDMAN

Sasson Gabay has big shoes to fill taking over the role of Tewfiq, but the show hasn't lost its step.

Tony Shalhoub may have set a minor precedent with his surprise Tony Award win for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Tewfiq Zakaria (the forlorn, frustrated and withdrawn conductor of an Egyptian police band) in The Band’s Visit. While Shalhoub originated the role when the musical premiered in 2016 at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, and returned a year later when it transferred to Broadway, he had already left the show by the time it dominated the Tony Awards in June.

At approximately the same time that The Band’s Visit opened on Broadway, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (in which Shalhoub has a plum supporting role as the lead character’s father) became a surprise streaming television hit. In late February, it was quietly revealed that Shalhoub had exited the Broadway production in order to shoot the second season of the Amazon Prime series, with Dariush Kashani (Oslo) taking over as Tewfiq. In May, Shalhoub returned to the production for a handful of performances, apparently so that Tony Awards voters could check him out in the role. Based on the Tony win, the voters clearly liked what they saw. I am unable to think of a prior instance where the Tony Award for Best Actor Musical went to someone who had already exited a musical that was still running. (Interestingly, when Company premiered on Broadway, Larry Kert, who took over for Dean Jones as Robert, was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical instead of Jones.)

It is very possible that Shalhoub will eventually return to The Band’s Visit – but it will not be anytime soon. As the show topped the Tony Awards, it was announced that Sasson Gabay (the Israeli stage and screen actor who played Tewfiq in the 2007 film of the same title, upon which the musical is based) would take over the role himself, making his Broadway debut at age 70. For the past quarter century, he has worked primarily with the Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv. While Tewfiq is not exactly a singing role, he has apparently appeared in Oliver! and Peter Pan in the past. In interviews, Gabay has indicated that he has a contract to appear in the show for a year.

Bringing Gabay into the Broadway production was a savvy move on the part of the show’s producers that guards against the difficulties posed by Shalhoub’s early exit and his Tony win (which could make people only want to see the show with him in it). While the Baghdad-born Sasson is practically unknown in the United States, he brings with him the cachet of the original film (which is very similar in tone and texture to the stage musical). Tewfiq is also a hard role to fill, requiring someone who either is or at least appears to be of Middle Eastern descent.

There is not a substantial age difference between Shalhoub (64) and Gabay (70), but Gabay looks much older. One could imagine him being not only the father but even the grandfather of Katrina Lenk, who plays the café proprietor Dina (and deservedly won her own Tony Award for her alluring performance). Gabay is also more melancholy and reserved than Shalhoub. While this suits the character, his performance is (not surprisingly) less theatrical and full-bodied and more suited to the intimacy of film. Although the slight romance between Tewfiq and Dina is ultimately left unconsummated and unacknowledged, the connection between the characters was more palpably felt between Shalhoub and Lenk. With them, the lack of a resolution to their romantic interest came as a surprise.

All this being said, The Band’s Visit maintains its potency and singularity as a modest and mild-mannered, yet absorbing and emotionally transparent musical, built upon David Cromer’s sensitive direction and the extraordinary integration of David Yazbek’s score and Itamar Moses’ book. Even with a new Broadway season already underway, The Band’s Visit ought to be able to sustain its place at the Barrymore Theatre for at least another year, inviting more audience members (many of whom have assumedly not experienced a musical quite like it before) to take the trip to the small deserve village of Bet Hatikva.