Chicago musicians making their mark in touring cast of 'The Band's Visit'
Scheduling conflicts prevented Oak Lawn native Ronnie Malley from starring in the initial New York runs of "The Band's Visit" in 2016 and 2017. But Malley is making up for lost time by starring in and working as the dialect coach for the musical's national tour.
The 10-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical makes its Chicago debut for a two-week September run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
"It's funny, it's sad, it's happy, it will make you feel good and it will make you cry," said Malley, a first generation Palestinian-American who has created a multidisciplinary career in Chicago as a musician, playwright, teacher, actor and business owner.
"('The Band's Visit') will take you on a roller coaster of emotion, but in the most subtle of ways without pandering," Malley said.
Malley portrays Camal, a musician who plays guitar and the oud (a precursor to the European lute) in an Egyptian military band. When a simple linguistic mistake lands the band in a remote Israeli desert town called Bet Hatikva, some of the residents open up their homes to them because there are no hotels and no outgoing busses until morning.
Malley has played in Middle-Eastern bands ever since childhood. That's what put Malley on the radar for producers of "The Band's Visit" as far back as 2010 when they started adapting the acclaimed 2007 Israeli film of the same name for the stage.
"It's about a band, but the movie didn't have as much music as I expected," said Malley about one of his main qualms. "Then they said, 'Why don't we make it a musical?'"
Malley submitted a long list of traditional Middle-Eastern songs, but veteran Broadway composer/lyricist David Yazbeck ("The Full Monty," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") was ultimately brought aboard. Yazbeck drew from his own Lebanese heritage and knowledge of Middle-Eastern music to create a Tony Award-winning score that was unlike anything heard on Broadway before.
"As you can imagine, these roles are very niche," Malley said. "Not everyone can get up and play an oud or a qanun."
If Malley is ever out sick or on vacation, two separate performers have to take over his role. One is an acting understudy, and the other is Chicago resident Alex Farha as the show's "musical swing."
Farha understudies by playing the guitar, oud and percussion. In fact, Farha was an oud student of Malley's at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music before he himself became a teacher there.
"My great-grandparents on my father's side were from greater Syria, so I was learning about that culture through the music," Farha said.
This is Farha's first Broadway national tour, and it has been eye-opening. Farha especially enjoyed working with former Chicago director David Cromer, who won a Tony Award for staging "The Band's Visit."
"If anything, it has been a master class in watching how a director can bring the best out of the actors and musicians," Farha said. "Most of the work I've done is through Arabic music or jazz guitar experience or rock bands -- typical musician gigs -- but the theater world is just an interesting place to be and I've learned so much just by watching."
Malley continues to be a teacher to Farha and others since he has started up Arabic language classes for the cast and crew. Malley also does plenty of cooking alongside the wife of the show's leading man, Iraq-born Israeli star Sasson Gabay, who created the role of band leader Tewfiq in the film of "The Band's Visit" before playing it onstage.
"We get together, and we make meals together, we eat together and talk about where we come from," Malley said. "It's been really fabulous, too, because I have relatives and friends from Haifa who know of (Gabay) from his movies. It's been a real blast. The whole cast is an amazing family."
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"The Band's Visit"
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2200 or broadwayinchicago.com
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Sunday, Sept. 15); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday (also Wednesday, Sept. 4); Sept. 3-15