Distortion is the danger when a small show moves to Broadway. Sets expand; acting gets broader; songs are lobbed to the rear balcony. If the key to a play’s success is smallness and intimacy, such a growth spurt can be damaging. Rejoice, then: The Band’s Visit has made the leap with dignity and pure, intense beauty intact.
One of the loveliest lyrics in David Yazbek’s ravishing score comes when Israeli café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk) recalls the stars of Egyptian music and film who enchanted her as a child. “Oum Kalthoum and Omar Sharif / Came floating on a jasmine wind / From the west, from the south: / Honey in my ears, spice in my mouth.” That’s a perfect way to describe this deeply moving musical. It wafts into the chilly fall season bringing waves of warmth and authentic, unique flavors. Leave synthetic pop and machine-tooled anthems to other shows; here is a sound that enkindles profound passion in the soul.
If that sounds like rapturous admiration, well, I’ve had almost a year to realize how much I adore this understated masterpiece. The Band’s Visit played last winter at the Atlantic Theater Company, where I greeted it with plenty of praise. But no one was sure a transfer would be possible—or even a good idea. When a clunky and critically despised behemoth like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs, what chance does a quirky, obscure tale of Egyptian musicians lost in small-town Israel have to thrive?
The book, by the canny and witty playwright Itamar Moses, closely follows the screenplay of the 2007 indie film, on which the show is based. An Egyptian police band, dressed in matching, powder blue uniforms, disembarks from a bus in the wrong Israeli town. They were headed to play a concert at an Arab culture center in Petah Tikva. Instead, thanks to heavy accents on both sides of the ticket window, they end up in Bet Hatikva, a dusty, depressed hamlet in the middle of…well, the locals serenade the confused officers with “Welcome to Nowhere.”
The rest of the story is perfectly, touchingly simple. The befuddled musicians, led by their crusty martinet of a conductor, Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub, superbly dry), pass day and night until they can catch the next morning bus. They and the locals get to know one another—with sweet, funny, sometimes melancholy results. The rotating storylines include a not-quite-date between the courtly but repressed widower Tewfiq and the lovelorn-but-wary Dina. The band’s girl-crazy trumpet player, Haled (Ari’el Stachel), ends up at a roller disco with an Israeli teen whom he coaches on the secrets of romance (“Haled’s Song About Love”). Reserved clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) gets a glimpse into the domestic misery of a shiftless husband (the excellent John Cariani) and his overworked, frustrated wife (Kristen Sieh).
Throughout, under David Cromer’s exquisitely controlled, subtle direction, the characterizations are rich and layered. Scenes blend effortlessly into songs. The staging is both utterly theatrical and finely realistic. This world, while it spins on a turntable and musicians keep the beat with Yazbek’s score for Arabic and Western instruments, is real and relatable.
That’s because the emotional situations revealed so honestly in The Band’s Visit are ones we’ve all felt: being a stranger in a strange land; terrified by first love; despair in a stagnant relationship; longing for touch but afraid to reach out. Connection is the basic, powerful theme here, between cultures, men and women, or fathers and sons. And the medium that allows that life-giving connection is music. Yazbek’s masterly score draws on classical Arabic sounds and Israeli pop, mixed with forays into Chet Baker–like jazz crooning and the composer-lyricist’s own funky-New Wave vibe. I’ve been a Yazbek fan since The Full Monty in 2000, and while I’d never have guessed back then he’d make this rare gem of a show, the Yazbek sound is unmistakable: wry, twisty and irreverent, but still can get its heart broken. So, on the one hand, I recognized his voice, but he’s speaking with a fascinating new accent.
Why You Should Go: The season is young, but this bittersweet heartbreaker might be the best we’ll see all year.
The Band’s Visit
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street (between Broadway and Eighth Avenue), Theater District
Tickets start at $49
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