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THEATER David Cromer on The Band's Visit and more
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-09-04

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Director and sometimes actor David Cromer rose to local fame 20+ years ago with fresh ideas about classic plays—Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, Elmer Rice—at Writers Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Next Theatre Company, the Hypocrites, Famous Door Theatre, Steppenwolf and others after graduating from Columbia College Chicago. His first New York forays were Off-Broadway shows he'd directed first in Chicago: Orson's Shadow ( 2005 ), The Adding Machine ( 2008 ) and Our Town ( 2009 ) in which Cromer also played the Stage Manager. All three were nominated for multiple awards and Cromer's career was launched, soon taking him to Broadway.

Cromer won the 2018 Tony Award for Direction of a Musical, The Band's Visit, which had transferred from a successful Off-Broadway run at the Atlantic Theatre Company. The Band's Visit swept the 2018 Tony Awards with 10 wins. The national tour of the small cast, nuanced musical now is at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sept. 15 ( although it could return next year ).

The Band's Visit first was a non-musical Israeli film which became an international sleeper hit. Roger Ebert named it one of 2008's best films. It concerns a small Egyptian police band, on a goodwill tour, that's stranded for 24 hours in a dusty Israeli desert town. There's no hotel and no bus 'til the next day. The locals, led by Dina, who runs the town café, offer the band their hospitality, warily at first but with increasing connection and shared humanity.

In 2016, writer Intamar Moses and composer/lyricist David Yazbek adapted the film as a stage musical, with Cromer directing. Yazbek—whose heritage is Lebanese, Jewish and Italian—created a score featuring both traditional Middle Eastern instruments ( such as the oud ) and western instruments, played onstage by musicians incorporated into the action as members of the band. There's neither chorus nor big production numbers, although plenty of the songs are lively and spirited.

Cromer, an old acquaintance, talked with the Windy City Times by phone from Greensborough, SC where he was fine tuning the tour—which began three months ago—just days before the Chicago opening.

Windy City Times: David, the question all Windy City Times Readers want to know is this: does winning a Tony Award improve your sex life?

David Cromer: ( laughing ) How could my sex life possibly get better than it already was? I hope no one would want to sleep with me because I won a Tony who wouldn't have wanted to sleep with me before!

WCT: When Broadway shows go on tour, the stage manager or assistant director often does all the real work. What were your responsibilities for the tour of The Band's Visit?

DC: I directed and cast the tour myself ( with ) the associate director and the choreographer. We went into rehearsal with it for three weeks plus nine days of technical rehearsals. It was a bit abbreviated because, of course, the production already existed. It's hard from me to walk away from the show. Some of the cast were veterans of the Broadway production or understudies, some were new. Sasson Gabai, who plays the Egyptian band leader, Lt. Col. Tawfiq Zacharya, heads the cast. He played the role in the original movie and on Broadway for a year, so he's the Ur-veteran!

WCT: The great Harold Prince ( who died July 31 at 91 ) was originally going to direct The Band's Visit. When he dropped out, did he recommend you to take over? Did you know him?

DC: No. I met him once backstage, but he's not the reason I got the job. I'd worked with Intamar Moses, and I'd met and had dinner with David Yazbek in London three years before that, so I knew a bunch of people. Intamar called me and said they were looking for someone, did I know anything about the piece, could I think of anyone …. I really wanted it BAD, so I said, naturally, I won't get it.

WCT: Was there still a lot of writing to do? How much did you influence the piece?

DC: The writing is beautiful. I added one or two things. Mostly I needed to encourage them, reassure them that they shouldn't be afraid of being quiet, shouldn't be afraid of being subtle, shouldn't be afraid about the show taking its time or being spare. The characters communicate through music, break through to each other, because music is a thing that people can bond over and discuss and enjoy that isn't politics or religion.

WCT: Before The Band's Visit, you'd never directed a Broadway musical. What did you learn?

DC: Trust your musical director and your choreographer! Make sure all you departments are integrated and talking to each other. I'm not musical, I can't read music, but I can understand when it makes emotional sense to me.

Cromer is loyal to old Chicago friends and professional associates. He returned in 2015 to play Ned Weeks, the lead role in Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, for TimeLine Theatre and earlier this year he directed Next to Normal at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. He'll be back in January to stage Tracy Letts's 1996 play, Bug, at Steppenwolf.

WCT: What brings you back to Chicago? It can't be the money.

DC: Actually, the money is good!

WCT: Did Writers Theatre and Steppenwolf say you could do anything you wanted?

DC: No one says 'You can do whatever you want." Don't trust anyone who does!

WCT: Will we see you acting again sometime soon?

DC: ( As an actor ) I used to think I was this lean, scruffy, edgy personality with a lot of hair. Now I've just become this doughy, phlegmatic actor and I don't much care for that. I don't think I'm going to miss it that much.

The Band's Visit runs through Sept. 15 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Bug runs at Steppenwolf Jan. 23-March 8.


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