REVIEW: “The Band’s Visit”—An intimately bold and beautiful new musical

REVIEW: “The Band’s Visit”—An intimately bold and beautiful new musical

Welcome to Nowhere

That’s the opening salvo from the local villagers of “The Band’s Visit”, an intimately bold and beautiful new musical that opened on Broadway this evening. 

They’re referring to Bet Hatikva, a fictional town in Israel’s Negev Desert that nobody’s heard of and where nothing happens, but they might as well be proclaiming to the audience: “welcome to nowhere you’ve ever been transported to in a musical before”—a place so real, honest, and moving that leaving the theatre 90 minutes later will feel bittersweet.

As an art form, musical theatre is constantly evolving and perfecting.  “The Band’s Visit” reaches a scintillating new frontier of elemental harmony and emotional exploration, quietly shifting boundaries as it envelops and intoxicates you in the desert night.  It’s funny.  It’s sad.  It’s human.  It’s perfect.

Based on the eponymous 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, the setup, like so much in this musical, is simple: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra (that’s Alexandria, Egypt), dressed in full "Sgt. Pepper" regalia, has come to Israel to perform at the inaugural ceremony of the Petah Tikva Arab Culture Center.  Due to a mix up at the airport bus station, though, the band arrives in Bet Hatikva, “with a B”, as in “boring”, “barren”, “bland”, “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah”. 

With no bus until the next morning, Dina, the local cafe proprietor—played by the inimitable Katrina Lenk (“Indecent”, “Once”) in a star-turn—orchestrates accommodations for the band to spend the night in “nowhere”.  As they settle into the town, strangers in a strange place, the sun sets for an evening of revelations and human interactions at once transformative and, yet, also not “very important”.

This musical is a paean to the power of music, culture, and humor to connect us all.  While situated in one of the most combustible regions of the world, the story and its characters are never expressly political—save for a few moments—instead letting long-simmering political conflict fade into the background to reveal something far more compelling: the lives of ordinary people who live amid this tumult.  That decision, alone, is a masterstroke, and it is refreshing to see Israelis and Arabs on stage discussing something other than violence and border disputes.

Dina takes in Tewfiq, the dignified, protocol-minded band leader, played by an excellent Tony Shalhoub (TV’s “Monk”, “The Price”, “Act One”), and Haled, the Chet Baker-obsessed suave trumpeter (Ari’el Stachel in his Broadway debut). 

Itzik (John Cariani, “Something Rotten!”) who is “between works now”, welcomes into his home Simon (Alok Tewari), a clarinet player who has let life get in the way of completing his concerto, and Camal (George Abud), a quiet violinist.  They crowd under the roof with Itzik’s sardonic, unsatisfied wife Iris (Kristen Sieh), their infant child, and his chummy father-in-law, Avrum (Andrew Polk).

A character simply named “Telephone Guy” (Adam Kantor) stares at the payphone on the street (it’s 1996), waiting for his girlfriend to call.  And cafe employee Papi (Etai Benson), who is unlucky with girls, and his slick pal, Zelger (Bill Army), who is too lucky with girls, head to a roller-disco (it’s 1996).

As the night unfolds, these characters impact each other’s lives in unexpected ways.  Not much happens in this musical, pregnant with pauses and stilted conversation between characters who don’t speak the same primary language. 

But, of course, everything happens. 

The interactions among the disparate characters provide a masterclass in subtly and understatement, portraying a slice of daily life in all its beauty, pain, wanting, and ordinariness.  Musicals are always expressionistic.  Most center around occasions easily identifiable as life milestones (the classic finale wedding) or major memorable events that change people in big ways (think Harold Hill’s arrival in River City).  

“The Band’s Visit” offers a progressive departure from that formula, giving it a new twist; sure, characters are changed, but the impact and meaning of those changes in the larger arc is unknown, just like it is in life.  This show is more poem than prose, and paradoxically cinematic in both its intimacy and sweep.

Broadway’s most underappreciated and unrecognized chameleon composer/lyricist David Yazbek (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, and “The Fully Monty”) has written his finest, most sophisticated, and non-traditional score yet, effortlessly weaving jazz, pop, Broadway, Arab, and klezmer flavors into musicalized moments that are remarkably organic.  That’s thanks to his collaboration with book writer Itamar Moses (“Nobody Loves You”, “Fortress of Solitude”) who provides a crisp, incisive script teeming with meaning without ever being too obvious or too opaque. 

Mr. Yazbek—who is of Lebanese, Italian, and Jewish descent—has always excelled in creating comedic songs that are disarmingly smart and really catchy.  His work here captures that ability, while delving deeper to spin scenes that are ethereal and mystical, like Ms. Lenk's “Omar Sharif”.  The point of songs in musicals is to express emotion; in "The Band's Visit", Mr. Yazbek goes a step further, creating a common language for his characters to speak.  

Under the swift direction of David Cromer (“Our Town”, “The House of Blue Leaves”), the company—most of whom have been with the show since its debut at the Atlantic Theatre Company—is terrific, including the band members who play their own instruments, providing lively vignettes and transitions throughout the evening.

Ms. Lenk, as Dina, is, as one critic properly concluded last year, “a revelation”.  Seductive and mysterious, with a swaggering confidence that belies an aching heart, she commands the stage bearing raw strength that is simply captivating.  Each toss of her head, slide of her limbs, and line delivery—whether sung or spoken—is mesmerizing.  Her performance is the finest breakout on Broadway since Ben Platt’s last season, and is a compelling reason on its own to pay a visit to the Ethel Barrymore.

As mentioned, “The Band’s Visit” began its life at Atlantic Theatre Company, a non-profit Off-Broadway base for exciting new works, and was developed, in part, with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.  I was fortunate to catch a performance during its acclaimed, sold out run in 2016, and am pleased that the production now on Broadway is even better, tighter, and sharper. 

Scott Pask has embellished his brilliant and clever set, which, combined with Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Maya Cliarrocchi’s projection designs, perfectly evokes the bleak desert setting of Bet Hatikva, and makes for a gorgeous milieu.  As the night progresses, the show becomes increasingly fantastical, transmogrifying to a kaleidoscopic plane of emotion, time, place, and possibility, all before snapping back to reality in the blare of morning’s sun. 

If there is any fault to be found in “The Band’s Visit”, it may be our own discomfort with a musical so unique, original, and unusual.  This is a show that dares to whisper instead of shouting, and that breathes, grows, and unfolds to a richly satisfying ending.  The final song, “Answer Me” (incidentally, the first song Mr. Yazbek wrote for the score) is a knockout that left me breathless and fighting back tears, as did the final tableau.

At the top of show, words projected onto a scrim wryly exclaim:

Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.
You probably didn’t hear about it.
It wasn’t very important.

I hope we never tire of hearing about “The Band’s Visit”, or talking about its importance in the pantheon of the American musical.

Bottom Line: “The Band’s Visit” by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses is an intimately bold and beautiful new musical that is unlike any you’ve seen before; a quiet celebration of the human spirit and the power of music, culture, and humor to connect us all, this show breaks the mold in fascinating and unexpected ways that are deeply moving and satisfying.  Do not miss this perfect musical.

The Band’s Visit
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: November 9, 2017
Final Performance: April 7, 2019

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tl;dr for November 6th