Band's Visit review
Band's VisitReview - Broadway musicalOne of the most ravishing musicals you will ever be seduced by opened on Thursday night at the Barrymore Theater. It is called “The Band’s Visit,” and its undeniable allure is not of the hard-charging, brightly blaring sort common to box-office extravaganzas.
Instead, this portrait of a single night in a tiny Israeli desert town confirms a lyric that arrives, like nearly everything in this remarkable show, on a breath of reluctantly romantic hope: “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.”
With songs by David Yazbek and a script by Itamar Moses, “The Band’s Visit” is a Broadway rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups. It is not a work to be punctuated with rowdy cheers and foot-stomping ovations, despite the uncanny virtuosity of Mr. Yazbek’s benchmark score.
That would stop the show, and you really don’t want that to happen. Directed by David Cromer with an inspired inventiveness that never calls attention to itself, “The Band’s Visit” flows with the grave and joyful insistence of life itself. All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the murmurs, whispers and silences of human existence at its most mundane — and transcendent.
And, oh yes, be willing to have your heart broken, at least a little. Because “The Band’s Visit,” which stars a magnificent Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub as would-be lovers in a not-quite paradise, is like life in that way, too.
There were worries that this finely detailed show, based on Eran Kolirin’s screenplay for the 2007 film of the same title, might not survive the transfer to Broadway. First staged to sold-out houses late last year at the Atlantic Theater Company, it exuded a shimmering transparency that might well have evaporated in less intimate quarters.
Yet “The Band’s Visit” — which follows the modest adventures of a touring Egyptian band stranded in an Israeli village significant only for its insignificance — more than holds its own on a larger stage. Its impeccably coordinated creative team has magnified and polished its assets to a high sheen that never feels synthetic.
This show was always close to perfect musically. (Mr. Yazbek’s quietly simmering score, which inflects Broadway balladry and character songs with a haunting Middle Eastern accent, felt as essential as oxygen.) But it felt a shade less persuasive in its connective spoken scenes.
That is, to say the least, no longer a problem. Though the lives it depicts are governed by a caution born of chronic disappointment, Mr. Cromer’s production now moves wire to wire with a thoroughbred’s confidence.
Such assurance is all the more impressive when you consider that “The Band’s Visit” is built on delicately balanced contradictions. It finds ecstasy in ennui; eroticism among people who rarely make physical contact; and a sense of profound eventfulness in a plot in which, all told, very little happens.
The story is sprung when the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Band, led by their straight-backed conductor, Tewfiq (Mr. Shalhoub), board a bus in 1996 for an engagement at the Arab Cultural Center in the city of Petah Tikva. Thanks to some understandable confusion at the ticket counter, they wind up instead in the flyblown backwater of Bet Hatikva.
They register as unmistakably alien figures there, looking like refugees from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in their powder-blue uniforms. (Sarah Laux did the costumes.) And there’s not a bus out of this godforsaken hole until the next morning.
Just how uninteresting is Bet Hatikva? Its residents are happy to tell you, in some of the wittiest songs ever written about being bored. The “B” that begins its name might as well stand for “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.”
Leading this civic inventory is a cafe proprietor named Dina (Ms. Lenk, in a star-making performance), a wry beauty who clearly doesn’t belong here and just as clearly will never leave. Like her fellow citizens, she sees the defining condition of her life as eternal waiting, a state in which you “keep looking off out into the distance/ Even though you know the view is never gonna change.”
Scott Pask’s revolving set, so fitting for a world in which life seems to spin in an endless circle, captures the sameness of the view. But Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, and the whispers of projections by Maya Ciarrocchi, evoke the subliminal changes of perspective stirred by the arrival of strangers.
Connections among the Egyptian and the Israeli characters are inevitably incomplete. To begin with, they don’t share a language and must communicate in broken English. And as the stranded musicians interact with their hosts, their shared story becomes a tally of sweet nothings, of regretful might-have-beens.
That means that the cultural collisions and consummations that you — and they — might anticipate don’t occur. Even the frictions that emerge from uninvited Arabs on Israeli soil flicker and die like damp matches.
The show is carefully veined with images of incompleteness: a forever unlit cigarette in the mouth of a violinist (George Abud); a clarinet concerto that has never been completed by its composer (Alok Tewari); a public telephone that never rings, guarded by a local (Adam Kantor) waiting for a call from his girlfriend; and a pickup line that’s dangled like an unbaited hook by the band’s aspiring Lothario (Ari’el Stachel, whose smooth jazz vocals dazzle in the style of his character’s idol, Chet Baker).
All the cast members — who also include a deeply affecting John Cariani, Kristen Sieh, Etai Benson and Andrew Polk — forge precisely individualized characters, lonely people who have all known loss, with everything and nothing in common. A marvelous Mr. Shalhoub (“Monk”) has only grown in the role of a man who carries his dignity and private grief with the stiffness of someone transporting perilously fragile cargo.
As for Ms. Lenk, seen on Broadway last season in Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” she is the ideal avatar of this show’s paradoxical spirit, at once coolly evasive and warmly expansive, like the jasmine wind that Dina describes in the breakout ballad “Omar Sharif.”
Listening to Tewfiq sing in Arabic, she wonders, “Is he singing about wishing?” She goes on: “I don’t know what I feel, and I don’t know what I know/All I know is I feel something different.”
Mr. Yazbek’s melody matches the exquisitely uncertain certainty of the lyrics. That “something different” is the heart-clutching sensation that throbs throughout this miraculous show, as precise as it is elusive, and all the more poignant for being both.
Last Update:February, 27th 2019