Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"The Band's Visit" comes to Milwaukee

“Nothing is as beautiful as something that you don’t expect.” 

On this Thanksgiving week, I for one am thankful for traveling musicals that make it so easy to write a review. For The Band’s Visit, I have nothing but praises to sing. This is a small, simple tale, for as the show’s bookends remind us, “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” 

This seemingly-unimportant story tells of one night in the middle of the Israeli dessert, where a troupe of musicians from Egypt end up in a tiny, unsuspecting town due to a travel mix-up. There’s no hotel in this little village and no bus back until morning, so the gentlemen in the band lean on the kindness of locals to get through the night. 

The band’s conductor is Tewfiq, an older man, quiet and reserved. He’s marvelously played here by Sasson Gabay, who is reprising the role he originated in the 2007 film. He’s also played the part on Broadway. To Gabay’s infinite credit, he succeeds in making one wonder at and care for this stoic character, even on a stage as large as the one at the Marcus Center. 

Opposite Tewfiq is Dina, owner of the town café. She’s beautiful, sensual, and tough as nails. On this warm dessert night, she attempts to awaken some long-lost feeling — not only in the traveling conductor, but herself. Critically-acclaimed actress Chilina Kennedy plays Dina, and she is exquisite. Kennedy’s voice soars and enchants as her movements transport us to that hot, sticky, dessert with its jasmine- and spice-scented breeze. She is, in a word, bewitching.

Alongside these two central figures stands a mighty ensemble of characterful personas. Bandmates and townsfolk alike, these are not one-dimensional parts. Rather, each one lures you in to make the audience feel a sense of connection. These are human stories and snapshots of life: a tired young mother, a young man who’s never kissed a girl, a clarinet player who is writing an original concerto, a boy waiting by a payphone for his girl to call. Some mourn the loss of loved ones; others celebrate the lives of those lost.  

Even in its simplicity, The Band’s Visit packs a lot of narrative into its one-and-a-half-hour, no-intermission runtime. Yet, somehow, this show takes its time as well. Characters and moments have room to breathe. There are silences, pauses, and stuttered attempts to bridge gaps in language between the Egyptian band and their Israeli hosts. One might find it slow, but I say this unhurried storytelling is positively charming. 

Filling some of the silence is a glorious Tony- and Grammy-winning score by David Yazbek. The band itself plays on stage throughout the show, lending authentic dimension to the characters and plot. It’s spellbinding to watch these musicians play so feverishly. Vocal performances are, across the board, equal to the music. 

Brilliant set design aids in the changing of scenery and flow of the story. A rotating stage takes the cast from a café to a series of apartments to a park. We even go to the newfangled town roller rink, complete with a spinning mirror ball that bathes the audience in shimmering flecks of light. It’s a gorgeous set and lighting design that makes inventive use of space and perspective. 

What kind of perspective are you bringing as you settle into your seat at the Marcus Center this holiday weekend? The Band’s Visit celebrates the intimate, authentic, and real; the facets of life that connect us and make us all human. It’s an uplifting reminder of all that we share and of what good and beauty can come when we open our doors and hearts to the unknown. This is the Thanksgiving show Milwaukee needs, and I’m so glad we’ve got it. 

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

You too can go to Fiji!

From Milwaukee to Nadi, here's how we did it

If you want to bowl people over with shock and awe, just tell them you’re going to Fiji. That’s the response Andrew and I got from friends, family, and near-strangers. To be fair, I’d never traveled that far before. The flight is a cool 11 hours from LAX. But it’s doable! So stop looking at us like Fiji, though exotic, is some unaccessible Eden. You too can go to Fiji! Here’s how we did it. 

Getting there
Step one: Pounce on credit card deals that can earn you airline miles and hotel points. Last year we were lucky to land a one-year Companion Pass (two flights for the price of one) through a Southwest limited-time offer. Andrew trusts The Points Guy for hot tips on credit card and flight deals. 

Step two: Watch for cheap flights. Andrew and some of his travel-hungry friends subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights (the free version). Every so often he’ll send me a cheap flight to ogle. This time, we not only ogled — we purchased. Within ten minutes of him texting me a deal for, roughly, $395 round-trip to Fiji from LAX and me confirming that we had no plans in early November, our tickets were booked. We used Southwest credit card points coupled with our Companion Pass to get to and from LAX for nothing. That means we each got from Milwaukee to Fiji and back for under $400 round-trip. 

Due to timing of flights, we did spend one night in LA — a fun way to work a mini trip into the bigger one. We had about 36 hours there. Our flight was direct from LAX to Nadi, Fiji. From the Nadi airport (stock up on duty-free booze here!), we hopped on a tourist bus through a company called Awesome Adventures. Andrew organized our bus transportation easy-peasy with the help of our first resort, the Octopus Resort on Waya Island. 

The bus took us to Port Denarau (stock up on snacks + drink mixers here!). From there, we took the ferry that runs daily to and from the Yasawa Island chain, making a dozen or so stops total. The journey, depending on your destination, is anywhere from half-hour to four hours. The ferry flyer is as good at any at home, with a bar, bathrooms, and a top deck where they keep the killer views. 

Where we stayed
We stayed four nights at the Octopus Resort — which, more on that experience later, but for now let’s just say it was a delightful stay and we would recommend it to anyone! We found this spot on Hostel World, but it was so much more than a hostel. Tip: Weigh the pros, cons, and price of booking through a site like Hostel World vs. booking through the resort itself. Booking directly may open up perks like “stay four nights, get the fifth free!” or room upgrades. 

Most, if not all, resorts require you to purchase a meal plan or eat in designated resort restaurants. This is partly because procuring your own food on such a remote island is physically impossible, unless you fancy scavenging for fallen mangos. 

If we could do the trip all over again, we would have done more island hopping in the Yasawa Islands. We heard great things about the sister resort to the Octopus: Blue Lagoon. Staying at the Octopus for four nights was wonderfully relaxing, giving us the chance to really feel at home there. That said, you could probably have a similar experience in just three nights, then move on to another location. 

For us, after our fourth night, we hopped back on the ferry to the main island for the second half of our stay. For this leg of the trip, we stayed at the Marriott because loyalty points made it a wallet-friendly choice. Again with the points! The trouble with the Marriott is it felt very man-made and Americanized. Lovely and luxurious, of course, with an infinity pool, spa, and swim-up bar — but sort of sterile. It was certainly nice for what it was, but we’d recommend opting for something more authentic. 

On our last day, the hotel front desk coordinated taxi for us back to the Nadi airport. Really, the getting-around was very simple! 

Language & currency
Most everyone we encountered spoke English very well, so language was barely an issue. In terms of money, we took out cash from an ATM at the airport. Andrew has a checking account and debit card through CapitalOne 360 which has no foreign transaction fees for ATM withdrawals. That’s where he stores travel-specific funds and only uses the card when traveling abroad. 

Taking out $400 Fijian (about $200 US) at the airport when we arrived, we got through our 8 nights with money leftover. Resorts tend to charge everything (drinks, excursions, meals) to the room bill, meaning there’s never any money exchanged during your stay. We only needed cash for cabs and service tips. 

Speaking of tips: We learned it’s best to tip your waiter, waitress, or bartender directly in cash. Apparently some resorts (the Marriott, in this case) keep a staggering percentage of tips for themselves, leaving the staff with next-to-nothing. That’s surprising and, frankly, disappointing. Be better, Marriott! 

That about sums up the logistics of our trip. Now for some drive-by bonus tips! 

Boat shoes
When you arrive at a smaller island in Fiji, there is no traditional port or pier. There is a little boat that meets the larger ferry. The little boat then drops you off in knee-high water to wade up to your resort. Dress accordingly. 

Bring your big purse to the buffet
I don't mess around with buffet food. You pay an arm and a leg for it, so get your dang money's worth! Bring your big purse and snag a croissant for later. Or a whole wheel of cheese and pile of salami. *Pats self on back* 

Plan for the weather & activities
There may be a daily passing shower. It may cool off enough at night where you'll wish you had some kind of fetching shawl to toss about your shoulders. If you do a hike deemed "for those with good physical fitness," that might be code for "bring your hiking shoes" (more on that another time).

Try not to do it. Going to two resorts for four nights each? Pack four outfits and wear each twice. Fancy sandals are not necessary, ladies. The wedges and block heels I packed didn't see the light of day. I quickly learned resort life is super casual, often barefoot. Save the suitcase space and your strength — don't haul around a bunch of stuff you don't need.

BYO booze
As alluded to up top, stock up on booze and mixers before you hit the resort to avoid overpriced cocktails. If there's a happy hour deal, that's the time to snag a piña colada or two. Cheers!