There are many quiet, very quiet, fragments of brilliance about The Band’s Visit, and coalescing around all of them is the delighted grin that you might find persists on your face throughout. The thought in your head causing this pleasure: that a show like this has made it to Broadway.
The 95-minute musical, directed by David Cromer and first performed last year off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, is such a contrary enterprise in many ways, not just in terms of the bright lights and brassiness one associates with Broadway musicals (it has none), but also in the story it does tell, and how that too proves to be nothing you would expect from it.
As The Band’s Visit—based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film—charms you, it does so in defiance of your preconceptions.
The musical is set in 1996 in Israel, and a little (fictional) town called Bet Hatikva. The problem is the musicians of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra—dressed in their stiff and striking Tiffany-blue suits, designed by Sarah Laux—should be in (the very real town of) Petah Tikva, and an Arab cultural center therein, and so the Israeli townsfolk and Arab musicians are stuck together overnight, until a bus out of town early the next morning.
You might expect that this set-up would lead to a dramatic backdrop for cultural misunderstanding, and prejudices being confronted and conquered.
But The Band’s Visit does something else on a much smaller scale with a more personal focus. It focuses on the people, and their own smaller dramas, and moments of discovery, both comic and serious.
Scott Pask’s design perfectly captures the run-down town with its pock-marked walls and dowdy streets, and with the addition of a bench, a park (or what passes for a park).
If the show has one failing it is that the large stage almost swallows it: Your eye roves here and there to locate characters and action. It can feel a little too tentative, and too engulfed by a big stage. It could be a little louder, it could own a little more swagger, without losing its charm.
The people of the Israeli town are, just as the blank buildings they live and work in suggest, bored out of their minds. Their brilliant opening number makes this clear, as, using the first letter of their town’s name, they spell out their feelings about the town: Boring. Barren. Bullshit. Bland. Restaurant owner Dina (Katrina Lenk) completes the litany: “Like in basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.”
It never gets boring to hear the wonderful (please Tony-nominated) Lenk say “blah,” as a dismissive growl. She is a commanding lead, who never overshadows her fellow actors.
The show is a winning marriage of Israeli snark and Arabic dry wit, accompanied by beautiful music played by the musicians Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigurksy, Harvey Yaldes, and Garo Yellin. (A word to the wise: Do not leave immediately after the curtain call.)
The band members and the locals eye each other warily at the start, as if teetering on the edge of a politically ominous cultural misunderstanding.
That never happens. Instead, David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Itamar Moses, who wrote the book, burrow more subtly and playfully into private pains and desires.
They have also have a lot of fun: “Stick in a pin in a map of the desert/Build a road to the middle of the desert/Pour cement on the spot in the desert/That’s Bet Hatikva.”
At first Adam Kantor, as Telephone Guy, a young man who waits forlornly for his girlfriend Amalia to ring him at a payphone, seems pathetic, a town joke.
But his presence deepens: His fervency, his idealism, his desire for a bright light of hope, is shared by everyone else in other scenarios.
Dina has been scuffed by romantic disappointment, and so her on-stage partnering with band member Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) is appropriate as he too has suffered hidden griefs.
But again, the writers have something else in store for us than a traditional romantic coupling. The relationship between Dina and Tewfiq is a bruised kinship, with romance and its possibility hovering around the edges but never enough for the audience to root for it to happen. You root for them to connect, rather than kiss.
That sums up the other characters too. Some of the band members stay at the home of Itzik (John Cariani), Iris (Alok Tewari), and her father Avrum (Andrew Polk). The latter sings, “Love starts on a downbeat,” remembering how he fell for his now-deceased wife. Iris is unhappy and put-upon, and Itzik clueless, but not a total dolt.
He is, as she identifies angrily, still the little boy, hiding up a tree to avoid celebrating his birthday, afraid to grow up. Their domestic discord, and the presence of Avrum, is as cleverly written, and stripped of tempting cliché, as Dina and Tewfiq’s non-sexual courtship.
Band member Haled (Ari’el Stachel) begins the show as a slightly creepy lech, asking whoever he wants something from whether they know Chet Baker and “My Funny Valentine.”
But just wait to hear how that song is eventually played, and prepare for something to catch in your throat, and watch his non-lechy attempts to help Papi (Etai Benson) communicate with girls—up to now the latter just hears an obscuring ocean sound flow over him where words should be. He feels “dead dead dead, belly up, going round, sinking down down down… like a schmuck.”
It is Lenk and Shalhoub’s platonic romance that tenderly anchors the show. You can almost smell the “jasmine wind from the west,” and “the honey in my ears, spice in my mouth” she sings of when rhapsodizing about the Egyptian movies starring Omar Sharif she would watch when younger.
With Tewfiq she considers life, their hurts, and the partial salves of the arts, music, and books. Shalhoub—like Lenk, commanding without hogging any limelight or chewing any scenery—tries to convince her of the joys of fishing. She asks him to sing something in Arabic; and as he does she sings (in my favorite songlines of the show), “Here’s this man, right here beside me/Kind of deep, and kind of cute in his Sergeant Pepper suit.”
At the end, it is the Telephone Guy whom all the characters surround as the band prepares to leave town for its rightful destination—except, of course, the band has been exactly where it should have been.
Telephone Guy’s desire for connection is a shared one. That desire is nothing to be mocked or dismissed, The Band’s Visit suggests. However fruitless it may seem, one always should try to achieve it. Indeed, that desire to connect should be cherished—almost as much as fishing and Chet Baker.
The Band’s Visit is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St., NYC; booking to April 29, 2018.